CHESTERTOWN — Prior to Fourth of July weekend, COVID-19 cases were primarily concentrated in the county’s nursing homes. Now Health Officer William Webb is warning that community spread is far outpacing facility cases at a rate that is “five times higher.”
“For me the situation is significantly more alarming than it was in mid-April,” Webb said during a Tuesday, July 21 Kent County Commissioners meeting.
Following statewide trends, he expects Kent County’s case totals to surge in the next two weeks. On July 19, Maryland’s case totals reached a high of 925 in one day — “a milestone not seen since the end of May,” Webb said.
Noting the Kent County Public Schools’ health program is operated by the county Health Department, which he said has been “chronically understaffed in normal years,” Webb advised the county’s schools be hosted through a virtual format in the fall.
“At this point, I would strongly advocate that Kent schools proceed with online learning for the fall semester,” Webb said.
The Board of Education is set to hold a special meeting during which the board will discuss its reopening plan for the upcoming school year. The meeting will begin at 5:30 p.m. Monday, July 27 and immediately move into closed session. Open session will resume at 6:30 p.m.
During the meeting, the board has the option to vote on the recommendations made by the administration. One model presented at a school board meeting earlier this month was for students to be broken into two cohorts that alternate classroom days with digital learning.
To submit comment during the meeting, email Gail Manly, executive assistant to the superintendent, at firstname.lastname@example.org. The meeting is closed to public attendance, but may be viewed at facebook.com/kcpsmdk12/live.
Further speaking to his recommendation that schools move to a virtual formation, Webb said infection control and outbreak response procedures are “still in the early stages of development” for the school system. He said the health department made a request in February for more staff but was denied.
“Outbreaks in the school setting will likely overrun the school health program and will require the health department to stop its regular services to free up our staff to respond to schools,” Webb said.
Speaking to Washington College’s opening — meaning roughly 846 students will be back on campus in Chestertown and about 200 more living off campus — Webb said the school’s testing and isolation procedures are in the final stages of development and “likely will be published shortly.”
From a public health perspective, Webb said having college students back on campus represents “an influx of the most mobile demographic that we have right now.” He asked the community to be aware of the college students and continue to use face masks, practice social distancing and make “responsible personal choices.”
Webb, however, praised the college’s plans for reopening saying “we’re partners for the college, we want them to succeed and we want to have (students) in the community.”
“I think that they’re doing a very good job of structuring how they’re reopening with their living accommodations and their infections control practices to minimize the risk to the community,” Webb said.
Webb said since his last report to the commissioners on June 30, there have been 25 new COVID-19 cases in Kent County, but no additional deaths since June 30. Further, there have been 16 new cases in the last week. Breaking down the new cases, Webb said there were two cases reported at the Resorts at Chester River and two at Kent Center — a new outbreak area that his team learned about on Monday.
There have been 21 new cases attributed to community spread since Webb’s report on June 30.
Using contact tracing, Webb said staff found six of the 21 cases occurred in two family units that hosted gatherings during the Fourth of July weekend.
Three of the 21 cases occurred in people who were unrelated but cohabiting. Two cases were related to occupational exposure. Ten cases were from “unidentified origin,” Webb said.
“Overall, Maryland conditions as it relates to COVID-19 have been deteriorating in the last three weeks,” Webb said. “Case counts have been climbing steadily since the Fourth of July weekend.”
While the state’s hospitalization rates have been trending “only slightly upward,” Webb said, positivity rates, the number of positive cases out of those tested on a rolling seven-day basis, are up.
People ages 18-34 are a “driving force” for the uptick in cases as that age group frequents bars and restaurants where “compliance with social distancing and facial coverings has not been rigorous,” Webb said. He said positivity rates for that age group were 84% higher than the general population.
“As a country, we are now in the midst of a surge in cases that was predicted when restrictions were relaxed in May,” Webb said. “The situation is bad and the models indicate that the virus is outpacing any benefits we might have accrued with the spring shutdown.”
Webb said the health department has tested 774 people since transitioning back to local testing. The county’s positivity rate is at about 5%, which is a little bit above state average.
While University of Maryland Shore Regional Health facilities have seen an influx of patients, Webb said they have not needed to utilize surge capacities “as far as I know,” he said.
Heron Point and Peak Healthcare have successfully entered the first phase of reopening, Webb said. Heron Point will be eligible to enter the next phase of reopening this week.
Still, Webb said Kent County has “fared a little bit better” than the rest of the state or other Mid Shore counties though the county’s positivity rate has doubled since his last report on June 30.
Webb called for the community to continue to wear face masks, use hand sanitizer, practice social distancing and make responsible personal choices. He said Kent County also may consider adding restrictions or regulations above what is being mandated by Gov. Larry Hogan.
“Our community’s success will rest with the action and personal responsibility everyone takes. I urge all to please continue to wear face masks, stay at home if you are at high risk, wash your hands and keep your distance while you’re socializing,” Webb said. “Your efforts make a difference. These measures work.”