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Mayor expands COVID testing sites as Baltimore sees more cases than ever

Mayor Brandon Scott speaks at a Wednesday news conference at a new COVID-19 testing site on the former Pimlico Middle School.
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Mayor Brandon Scott speaks at a Wednesday news conference at a new COVID-19 testing site on the former Pimlico Middle School.

Mayor Brandon Scott announced expanded COVID testing sites, more masks and tests for city schools and that many city employees will shift back to telework as the highly transmissible omicron variant continues to spread post-holidays.

At a news conference Wednesday, the Democrat also said that the city health department has suspended in-person activities at senior centers and will increase capacity at Lord Baltimore hotel, where homeless people with COVID may receive shelter and isolate from others.

“I also want to remind everyone that we still have had continuously an indoor mask mandate in Baltimore City,” he said outside the former Pimlico Middle School. “I do not want to see anyone thinking it does not apply to them, because it does.”

The city opened a new testing facility at the same time as the news conference. Scott said he will expand city-sponsored testing sites in the coming days and weeks and that Baltimore has purchased 200,000 at-home testing kits for community distribution.

“We know that we are seeing long lines and extended wait times at all of our testing sites,” he said. “We are here today to increase that capacity and allow us to continue to track infections.”

Health commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said Baltimore is seeing more cases now than at any other time during the pandemic’s long run.

She said the city is experiencing high community transmission: the seven-day average case rate is 252 cases per 100,000 residents and every third COVID test taken in Baltimore is positive.

Hospitalization rates have shot up 170% over the last two weeks. On Dec. 20, there were 306 patients with COVID occupying beds and city hospitals. On Jan. 4, that figure was 822 patients.

As of Jan. 3, city hospitals were at 86% capacity in the ICU and 88% capacity in acute care units.

“Given this ongoing surge in hospitalizations threatening to overwhelm our health care system, I would ask that everyone please reserve emergency room visits for true emergencies,” Dzirasa said.

She preached familiar mitigation methods: get vaccinated and boosted, practice social distancing and wear a mask.

Scott said that Baltimoreans in their thirties and twenties are contracting COVID at the highest rates and that young people “have to have a higher sense of responsibility.”

“You might have omicron and not know, and take it over to your grandmother's at Christmas and then she ends up on a ventilator, or give it to your father or someone else,” he said.

Scott announced that the city will send 100,000 tests and 80,000 N95 masks to the Baltimore City Public Schools system to support in-school COVID mitigation efforts.

Students and teachers are due to return to the classroom Thursday, despite the surge. CEO Sonja Santelises announced earlier this week that all school staff must get tested regularly throughout the rest of the month, regardless of their vaccination status. Previously, only unvaccinated staff were required to undergo regular testing.

The mayor said that students cannot afford any more of the learning loss associated with virtual learning, adding that parents, teachers and students have told him that they cannot return to online classes.

“Shifts to virtual learning have negatively impacted our students’ social emotional well-being, academic outcomes and deepened racial and socioeconomic equity inequities here in Baltimore. And we've seen the immediate and short term effects,” he said.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.