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By all measures the coronavirus pandemic continues to take a massive toll, burdening individuals and straining the health care system.
But the state has fared better than many for much — though not all — of the pandemic when it comes to severe disease and lives lost, data and analysis shows.
Infections remain high, with 9,986 new cases reported Friday, and many more people are expected to test positive for COVID-19 because of the highly contagious omicron variant in the very near future. But data and projections suggest cases may have peaked and the worst from the pandemic may pass just a bit faster in the state than elsewhere.
“Soon the state will see an exponential decline in cases, to be followed by a decline in hospitalizations,” said Eili Klein, associate professor in the department of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins University. ”But, that leaves a lot of people in the hospital. We still need to do what we can to limit the spread, because we want that number to come down as fast as possible.”
Klein said there are certain areas of the state, such as its eastern and western regions, that won’t peak at the same time as the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas — meaning they will face prolonged hospital crises. People there also are less likely to be vaccinated, he said.
Maryland generally is still feeling the effects from a surge in early December of COVID-19 cases tied to the delta variant, a more virulent strain of the coronavirus than the now dominating omicron variant.
From September to January, the state had a far lower death rate than surrounding states, he said. That changed in the last two weeks as the surge of delta cases translated into more hospitalizations and deaths. They typically lag infections by weeks.
On Friday, the state added 69 additional deaths to Maryland’s count of COVID-19 fatalities.
Klein said as the omicron variant takes over, Maryland’s metrics should peak soon and earlier than its neighbors.
That’s what models show at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent health research center at the University of Washington.
They show Maryland’s cases already peaked at the start of the month, about five days ahead of the nation’s peak. Hospitalizations should peak in the next week in the state and deaths should follow just after, also just ahead of the country, the models predict.
“They are going to peak and come down as fast as they went up,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the institute.
Mokdad said most people still will be infected eventually, and the biggest concern should be mitigating the serious cases. That means efforts should focus on vaccinations and booster shots that can prevent people from needing hospitalization.
Mokdad said front-line medical institutions need attention and support so they can continue to provide care through the remainder of the surge. Also, public health leaders need to prepare for the next wave, with adequate testing and vaccination supplies and upgraded masks.
And government leaders ought to do what they can to ensure the basic functioning of the country by keeping store shelves stocked and other necessities available, he said.
Mokdad expected treatment for coronavirus eventually to be like that for the flu, which requires regular vaccinations for the public and surge capacity in hospitals.
“We never shut down for the flu, we don’t rush to test ourselves or learn what kind of flu it is,” he said. “We take a vaccine. … If you are vaccinated you won’t likely go to the hospitals. If you’re not, you’re taking a big risk.”
It’s important to note who is dying from the omicron variant now, said Dr. Kathleen Neuzil, director of the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Speaking during a virtual media briefing with Dr. Bruce E. Jarrell, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, she said Maryland has done well at getting people vaccinated and protected against COVID-19 compared with other states.
That is in large part due to employer and school-based mandates, she said — though her comments came just ahead of Thursday’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down a federal mandate that companies with more than 100 employees require vaccinations.
Those now suffering severe disease are largely unvaccinated, or vaccinated but elderly or suffering with weakened immune systems or from major health conditions, Neuzil said. The vaccines help, but just don’t work as well for them, she said.
Maryland also has good data reporting compared to other states and countries, though Neuzil added that unless genomic sequencing is done in every case it can be difficult to understand the cause of the latest surge.
Maryland health officials have said they look at the genetic makeup to determine the variant in about 10% of positive cases reported.
On the ground in hospitals, which have reported severe strain on diminished staff, there also may be some reason for optimism.
Dr. John Chessare, president and CEO of Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson, noted in recorded remarks that many public health researchers believe that omicron has hit its peak and indeed cases are dropping at GBMC.
The hospital was treating 76 COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday, down from 88 the week before. A dozen were in the intensive care unit and two people have died in the last week, and neither was immunized, Chessare said.
He said cases have been severely undercounted nationwide because many people have mild or no symptoms or haven’t reported their positive cases when they take tests at home. But he expects the number to soon begin dropping rapidly, and relief for hospitals will follow.
“Will there be a new variant that pops up somewhere across the world that is resistant to the vaccine in the United States of America, such that we might get another wave? We don’t know that,” Chessare said. “The best way to stop a new variant is to get everybody immunized.”
Data from the Maryland Hospital Association shows the state is still in the throes of the latest surge — and the state’s hospitalization rate remains above the national rate.
The rate in Maryland passed the national rate one other time, from early March to late May. The rate in Maryland is now close to 58 per 100,000 people versus the national rate of about 44 people per 100,000.
That puts the state’s COVID-19 hospitalization rate at 31% above the U.S. average, according to the hospital association.
Bob Atlas, the association’s president and CEO, said about 75% to 85% of people hospitalized with COVID in Maryland are unvaccinated or undervaccinated.
He did note there has been a slight decline in cases and the rate of positive cases from testing in the last few days, and one day’s decline in hospitalizations.
State data shows there were almost 10,600 new cases and 63 deaths reported in Maryland Thursday. Hospitalizations dropped by 34 people to 3,428, still far above the previous pandemic peak in early 2021 of 1,952.
“It is much too soon to say that we’ve reached the peak,” Atlas said of hospitalizations. The association “cannot speculate about the future. All hospitals still have many more COVID patients than at any time over the course of the pandemic and all energies are being devoted to caring for them and all the other patients needing hospital-level care.”
Atlas said Maryland has the 7th highest rate of COVID hospitalization of any state. Neighboring Washington, D.C., ranks 1st, Delaware ranks 2nd and Pennsylvania ranks 6th.
“We continue to urge the public,” he said, “to get vaccinated and boosted, to wear good masks properly, and to keep spatial distance from others.”