The Ocean City boardwalk arch.
Maryland released data this week that shows the positivity rate for coronavirus tests in Worcester County, home to the popular beach town Ocean City, is more than double the state average.
In Worcester County, the state's easternmost county, the rate was 8.39% on Wednesday, which marks its highest peak since May 31, according to state data. By Friday, it had dropped slightly to 8.1% — still a sharp uptick from its rate of 2.6% on Aug. 14.
The positivity rate calculates the proportion of people who test positive for COVID-19 out of the overall number of people tested. A high rate of positive tests suggests higher levels of disease transmission in the community, and that there are likely more people with COVID-19 in the community who haven't been tested yet. The World Health Organization has recommended jurisdictions see a rate below 5% for 14 days before advancing reopening plans.
While Worcester has reported less than 900 total cases, it has the highest positivity rate of any county in the state.
Every other jurisdiction (with the exception of Caroline County, at 6.34%) reported a rate below 5%. The statewide positivity rate — calculated over a a seven-day rolling average — was at 3.48% as of Friday, the 27th consecutive day the rate was reported below 4%.
Worcester's Health Department attributes the spike to a few factors, according to emailed responses from Travis Brown, the department's public information officer. First, Brown says, the county has "dramatically" increased testing over the past few weeks. Worcester has tested nearly a quarter of its residents, at more than 12,800 tests administered, putting it in the second percentile of testing among Maryland's jurisdictions.
"We also experience a massive population spike in the summer months and more people equals more chances for transmission of COVID-19," Brown says. "One of our primary focuses is to make sure that our hospital infrastructure and ICU capacity isn't overtaxed. And even with the increase in positivity rates right now, we're in strong shape."
Earlier in the summer, state and local officials warned of lax regulations in beach towns like Ocean City. (The state has since mandated face coverings on the Ocean City boardwalk during certain hours.)
Gov. Larry Hogan announced the state would continue with Phase 3 reopening plans on Tuesday night, but not all jurisdictions agreed that it's time to move forward — Montgomery and Prince George's County leaders have said they wouldn't join the rest of the state in these plans.
"One of the things I'd love to know is how many people who got COVID had a vacation in Ocean City," Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said at a press briefing Wednesday. (Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan hasn't responded to DCist's request for comment.)
In Prince George's, County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said that her jurisdiction will not advance to Phase 3 in part because 13 zip codes still have a positivity rate above 5%.
Brown says Worcester is still on track to move into Phase 3, adding that "our hospital system is operating efficiently and not near capacity even with the increase in positivity rate." Worcester health officials are following state health department guidelines, he says.
Brown says that while large crowds are expected this time of the year, county officials are staying "cautiously optimistic" and don't have specific health concerns ahead of the Labor Day weekend.
"While it's true that more people increase chances for transmission, our county businesses and residents have done a tremendous job proactively following best public health practices."
The data reflects test results for Worcester County residents, though sometimes people with multiple places of residence, including vacation homes, are initially counted with the county's numbers, according to Brown.
As a whole, Maryland's positivity rate has plummeted significantly since April, when it was well over 20%. In early August, Hogan boasted of the state's progress, when the positivity rate dropped below 4% for the first time since the state started measuring it.
Yet, state lawmakers have grilled Maryland health officials for counting positivity rate differently than the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, which divides the positive cases by the number of people who get tested, a method they say rules out duplicates. The state calculation includes people who get tested more than once, as long as they were not performed the same day at the same location.
Using Hopkins' method, Maryland's positivity rate is higher, at 4.8%.