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Baltimore health experts urge caution this Christmas

A rendering of the SARS-CoV2 virus that causes COVID-19. The virus is also responsible for a host of serious maladies that linger in patients after their infections have abated. (credit CDC)

Baltimore health experts are urging people to reconsider their Christmas plans as the omicron variant spreads rapidly.

City health commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said you might want to narrow down your guest list.

“Many of us may have had a normal Thanksgiving pre learning about omicron,” Dzirasa said at a virtual town hall. “But now is the time to go back to many of the measures that we were doing before that kept a lot of us safe.”

Dr. Dzirasa said for Christmas, she’ll have a smaller gathering than she did at Thanksgiving. She’s thinking about her son, who just turned five and has only been able to receive one dose of the vaccine, and her older family members.

For Thanksgiving, Dzirasa said her guests – who were limited to immediate family members – were all tested and fully vaccinated, if eligible.

Dzirasa said this Christmas it’s also “really critical” that you get vaccinated and tested.

“If you're experiencing symptoms, if you believe you've been in contact with someone who had symptoms, just get tested, and wait until receiving your results,” she said.

All of the city health department’svaccine sites are now walk-ups. If you need a test, prepare for a long wait time. You may also need to make an appointment, depending on the site.

At-home COVID-19 tests will also be availableTuesday at all Pratt locations, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Each person will receive two test kits as long as supplies last.

State health officials reported Monday that the state's testing positivity rate is 10.27%. That's the highest seven-day positivity rate the state has seen since June 2020.

Hospitalizations are also continuing to spike in Maryland. Health officials reported 1,345 COVID-19 hospitalizations Monday morning, the highest number since February.

Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a pulmonary and critical care medicine physician at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said at the town hall that Thanksgiving travel probably contributed to the ongoing surge.

Galiatsatos also said that while experts have indicated that omicron could be less severe, it’s still a cause for concern because it’s more transmissible. Even if a smaller proportion of people with omicron are hospitalized, he said that could still be more hospitalizations than with delta.

“That's the part that frightens us,” he said. “If this virus can find more unvaccinated people to do more harm in, your health care system at some point won't be able to keep up with that.”

Both Galiatsatos and Dzirasa stressed the importance of washing your hands, avoiding large crowds, and indoor-masking. Dzirasa said double-masking in a public indoor space is ideal.

Galiatsatos also stressed that a lot of the patients he’s seeing hospitalized with COVID are unvaccinated.

“COVID-19…is a preventable disease” he said. “This is our plea to everyone to recognize we have the tools now to end this.

You can find a vaccine or test in Baltimore by visiting the city health department’s website, coronavirus.baltimorecity.gov or calling the city health department. 

Sarah Y. Kim is WYPR’s health and housing reporter. Kim is WYPR's Report for America corps member, and Anthony Brandon Fellow. Kim joined WYPR as a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. Now in her second year as an RFA corps member, Kim is based in Baltimore City.