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Officials Urge Caution In Face of Coronavirus, As Confirmed Cases Grow

Emily Sullivan

As more cases of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, have been confirmed in Maryland, state and local leaders are asking the public to take precautions to avoid spreading the disease.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski and his team of school, health, and public safety officers met with reporters Thursday morning to discuss the first known case of the novel coronavirus in Baltimore County. 

"The individual is in his 60s and worked at the recent AIPAC (America Israel Public Affairs Committee) conference in Washington DC. He is not hospitalized," Olzewski said.

In addition, the county has opened a COVID-19 hotline, (410) 887-3816, which will be available from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Dr. Gregory Branch, the Baltimore County health officer, said health workers have tested 20 people for the virus. Thus far, one tested positive and they are waiting for results on nine other tests.

Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said at a city hall briefing Wednesday morning there “have not been any reported cases of COVID-19 in the city.” 

But, she advised the public to check cdc.gov and health.maryland.gov web sites for updated information and warned residents to take precautions.

“We encourage all residents to make sure they are limiting the spread of respiratory diseases by engaging in personal protective behaviors,” she said.

Dzirasa echoed the advice given by national health advocates; wash your hands frequently, stay home if you’re sick and avoid touching your face.

In the same briefing Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said public schools would remain open even though colleges and universities throughout the state have cancelled classes, or are planning to teach remotely in the future.

“We have developed an internal team, in the event – I just want to repeat in the event – there are no known cases currently,” she explained. “But in the event there is a case in a school we have a team ready of some of our best custodians around disinfecting a building, in the event we have to go to that level.”

Santelises said her team is able to clean and disinfect the schools at the end of the day when students leave – something that’s extremely difficult in college dorms.

In other developments, officials announced another case of coronavirus confirmed in Anne Arundel County; a woman from Montana in her 70s who is a part time resident of the county. The women went to an Anne Arundel County hospital for testing after she had been alerted that she had been in close contact with someone with a confirmed case of the disease.

Governor Larry Hogan said in a press briefing the 12 Marylanders that had been taken from the Grand Princess docked on the West Coast to military facilities in Texas and Georgia for quarantine would not be allowed home before they were tested for the virus.

“All those who are cleared and test negative will be safely transported back here to Maryland,” Hogan said. “Anyone who tests positive will remain in quarantine on the respective military base.”

In addition, he said the Motor Vehicle Administration will move toward an all appointment system to reduce walk in traffic and keep crowds at a minimum; that state prisons would end visits to individuals in infirmaries and that nursing homes in Maryland restrict access to essential visits only.

Officials say to call your primary care provider if you feel COVID-19 symptoms, which include a fever, cough and shortness of breath, especially in people who have travelled abroad or in contact with someone who has travelled to China, South Korea, Italy, Iran, or anywhere else there’s been an outbreak.

And Baltimore City Fire Chief Niles Ford reminded people to use 2-1-1 in non-life threatening emergencies.

“Nine, one, one is an emergency line,” he said. “If people use the system in the improper way, they could exacerbate our system. And we want to be in the position that if someone has a heart attack on the west side of Baltimore that we have the resources to send them to that call.”

While young children appear to be spared from the coronavirus, it is affecting the elderly, people who work in hospitals and people with chronic illnesses, or underlying conditions.

And while there have been questions about the availability of coronavirus test kits nationally, Governor Larry Hogan said at a recent press briefing Maryland is ready.

“We’re going to be dramatically and rapidly widening the number of people that are going to be able to get tested and will get tested,” he said.

Hogan addressed reporters with the state’s deputy health secretary for public health, Fran Phillips. Phillips said the number of test kits in Maryland is increasing.

“We have on hand the capability to do over 800,” she said. “We have not ordered another thousand cases from the CDC. That’s the state lab. In addition to that we expect volumes to increase through the commercial labs as well as now the hospital labs will be coming on board shortly.”

Mary Rose is a reporter and senior news producer for 88.1 WYPR FM, a National Public Radio member station in Baltimore. At the local news desk, she assigns stories, organizes special coverage, edits news stories, develops series and reports.
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