Baltimore City officials map out coronavirus preparation, including testing, school response

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Photo by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr

Baltimore City officials are working to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and preparing for how to respond in the event of an outbreak in the city, including how to distribute meals to children, families and seniors who are food insecure.

As of 1:23 p.m. Wednesday, there have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Baltimore City, but there are nine confirmed cases of COVID-19 in other parts of Maryland, including five in Montgomery County, three in Prince George’s County and one in Harford County.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s office announced Wednesday afternoon that a Montana resident visiting Anne Arundel County tested positive for coronavirus. While the woman, who is in her 70s, will not go toward Maryland’s official count, the state will take the lead investigating the case.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young announced he is postponing the annual State of the City Address so his administration can respond to potential threats from the disease.

In a Wednesday press conference with Young and other city officials, Baltimore City food policy director Holly Freishtat said the city has activated an emergency food working group, comprising 12 city agencies and key nonprofits that are working on food distribution. That group is developing strategies to deliver food to senior citizens at their residences and feed children and families in the event of school closures.

“People will still be able to be able to get fed. Kids will still get fed,” Freishtat said.

Freishtat said there are 166,000 Baltimore residents on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But she said SNAP cannot be used online, which poses an issue for those families if they are self-quarantined.

City Schools will modify its feeding protocol that it uses during snowstorms and other events to feed community members if schools are closed, Freishtat said.

City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said the school system is working closely with the Baltimore City Health Department and following the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on City Schools’ response to the coronavirus.

Santelises said the school system has issued instructions to school leaders and custodian supervisors for cleaning and disinfecting schools, including increased attention to “high touch points,” such as doorknobs and handrails.

All school buses are being cleaned and disinfected twice daily, Santelises added.

Santelises emphasized that there have been no cases of the coronavirus in City Schools or elsewhere in Baltimore City thus far. But in the event that there is a confirmed case of COVID-19 inside a City Schools building, Santelises said the school system will deploy a custodial team for disinfection.

“In the event that there is a case within a school, we have a team ready of some of our best custodians around disinfecting a building in the event that we have to go to that level,” she said.

University System of Maryland Chancellor Jay A. Perman yesterday urged universities to shift to remote instruction for at least the two weeks after the end of spring break.

Following that announcement, several colleges have cancelled classes so that students and staff can prepare for scheduling changes.

Santelises said City Schools is taking its lead from the Baltimore City Health Department when it comes to closures, and that K-12 schools are a “different education setting” than higher education institutions.

“I think it’s important for the public to understand that the dynamics of a university system, the size of the University of Maryland, with young adults and faculty in residence is a very different setting than K-12 buildings that by and large are emptied every day. We have the ability to clean regularly,” she said.

Santelises said the school system has ordered additional supplies, and that anyone who does not have soap in their school should email the City Schools’ communications department.

She added that City Schools has created page for families that is updated daily, and the school system is working with the health department to identify any potential and possible closures of schools.

Baltimore City Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa said she does not know the exact number of tests that are available in the state of Maryland.

“Initially, when it was going to the Maryland Department of Health or CDC, we were much more aware of the number of tests that were going out,” she said. “But with it being rolled out to private labs, we may not know necessarily know every single test until the result comes back and it is reportable to the health department as a communicable disease.”

Dzirasa said she does know the number of tests that have been administered in Baltimore, adding that she is not at liberty to share that number.

The Baltimore City Health Department’s Office of Acute Communicable Diseases will be in charge of any investigations of any potential confirmed case of the coronavirus in Baltimore City to trace whom they may have come into contact with, Dzirasa said.

Dzirasa urged people to seek out the most accurate and up-to-date information through the websites for the CDC, Maryland Department of Health, and Baltimore City Health Department.

“Certainly if there is a case of a pandemic, I think everyone should be informed,” she said. “I think the biggest thing is to put out accurate information, and so really looking to sources of truth.”

Nationwide, there have been at least 1,050 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., including 29 deaths, as of 1:23 p.m. Wednesday, according to a real-time dashboard created by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

Dzirasa said people who have traveled to a Level 3 CDC Travel Advisory country–which as of Wednesday include China, South Korea, Italy and Iran–should self-quarantine for two weeks.

“If you have recently traveled to a Level 3 CDC Travel Advisory country that has widespread ongoing community transmission of COVID-19, we are asking that you stay home for 14 days from the time of your arrival back into Baltimore City to self-monitor for symptoms,” she said.

In addition to social distancing for that two-week period, returning travelers should take their temperature with a thermometer two times per day and check for a fever greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, Dzirasa said.

She added that people should monitor themselves for coughing or trouble breathing. If concerned about the progression of their illness, those people should call their healthcare provider for further directions.

People should not take public transportation, taxis or rideshare services during social distancing. They should avoid crowds and keep a distance of six feet between themselves and other people, Dzirasa said.

Dzirasa said all people should participate in personal protective behaviors, including washing their hands frequently with soap and warm water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer; coughing and sneezing into their sleeve or a tissue and then throwing that tissue away and washing their hands immediately afterwards; and avoiding touching their eyes, nose and mouth.

Baltimore City Fire Department Chief Niles Ford urged residents not to inundate 911 with non-emergency calls.

“If people use the system in an improper way as we evolve into what we think we could possibly evolve into, they could exacerbate our system,” he said.

Instead, people should call 211 for non-emergency concerns about the coronavirus or other issues, Niles said.

When calling 911, Niles said people should provide as much information and the most accurate information as possible.

Before the mayor’s press conference, Council President Brandon Scott advocated for continued communication of up-to-date information about the city’s response to COVID-19 with the residents of Baltimore.

“Mr. Mayor, it is times like these that call for us to put politics aside and work together to make sure that the people of Baltimore are getting what they need and expect from their leaders during this crisis. And I am happy to say that that’s exactly what’s been happening here in Baltimore,” Scott said.

Scott also announced yesterday that he will be livestreaming council meetings, hearings and press conferences on his official Facebook page for people to watch online rather than attending in person, amid concerns about the coronavirus.

Marcus Dieterle

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  1. Letitia Dzirasa Said “I don’t know”. Several times. I called the health department and asked if they can test for the virus, they said they don’t have them and are not sure where to get one. They said just go to your doctor. Local prompt care doesn’t have tests for the virus either. Isn’t it great that the governor has declared a state of emergency so that we are ready to deal with this thing? LOL

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