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Howard County latest to add new restrictions to fight surge

Calvin Ball

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announced new restrictions on gatherings as coronavirus cases continue to surge across the state. Ball said Howard is “now at a tipping point” in the fight against the pandemic. (File photo)

Howard County residents will be subject to new restrictions on gatherings as coronavirus cases surge across the state.

County Executive Calvin Ball said his county is “now at a tipping point.” The first-term Democrat speaking Monday issued new restrictions that mirror those in neighboring central Maryland jurisdictions.

“As we approach Thanksgiving and our winter holidays it is important that we act swiftly and thoughtfully to stop this spike in cases, keep our residents safe and well and continue to support our business community,” said Ball.

“None of us want to roll back re-openings or to see more restrictions at the state level but if our numbers continue escalating in the wrong direction, all of that is possible,” he said.

The county executive Monday issued executive orders limiting indoor gatherings, including private and family gatherings, to no more than 10 people. Outdoor gatherings including amateur sporting events, cookouts and parade, are limited to no more than 25 people.

County Recreation and Parks has canceled all tournaments that include out-of-state participants and “redoubled it’s enforcement of mask wearing” for other programs.

Ball also announced a “Stay COVID Safe” campaign to inform the public on steps to stop the spread of the virus. The effort will include so-called ambassadors that will remind people to wear masks and socially distance and avoid large gatherings.

The approach centers around education with citations and closures as a last resort. Howard County Police Chief Lisa Myers said residents and businesses have been willing to comply and no citations have been issued and no closures have been necessary.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a second-term Republican, has frequently criticized local governments for failing to enforce state and local restrictions even as cases grow.

“With these new requirements, our goals are still the same,” said Myers. “We will be asking you for your voluntary compliance. Issuing citations will be our absolute last resort. We will do it if we must under the direction of the governor and the county executive.”

Contact tracing in Howard, other counties and statewide show that large private gatherings are a key driver in the spread of the virus as colder weather is pushing people inside. Ball said there is also a growing sense of COVID fatigue as the pandemic stretches into its ninth month in Maryland. As the virus becomes more widespread, Ball said contact tracing will become less effective.

“We’ve all grown tired from our inability to see loved ones,” said Ball. “I, for one, have missed not being able to hug my parents for eight months. And we all have that frustration so many people are beginning to take fewer precautions than they did previously.”

The Maryland Department of Health reports positivity rate in Howard County — one measurement of the virus — is 4.53%, below the CDC and World Health Organization recommendation of 5%. Howard County’s dashboard places the testing rate at 4.99% as of Monday afternoon.

However, other measurements are increasing as they are across the state.

Maryland’s new cases per 100,000 people is 28.2 and has been sharply rising since mid-October when the rate surpassed 10 per 100,000. Allegany County continues to outpace the state with a rate of more than 112 new cases per 100,000 people.

Howard County Monday morning reported at rate of 18.4. The county is also reporting a transmission rate — the number of people who are likely to be infected by one person who tests positive — of 1.26. That rate is slightly higher than the state average of 1.25 A rate below one is considered to show that transmission is low.

Also, the number of people hospitalized including acute and intensive care beds is growing to levels not seen since late May and early June when the state was coming down from the peaks of the first surge in the spring.

Dr. Shafeeq Ahmed, interim president at Howard County General Hospital, said his facility continues to treat non-COVID patients and perform elective surgeries but has seen an increase in COVID-related illnesses. The rise in coronavirus-related patients has been rapid, he said.

“We haven’t seen this level since the first surge,” said Ahmed. “So, we are feeling we are in our second surge of patients.”

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