Health officials caution reactions as Maryland now include coronavirus by zip code

The Maryland Department of Health is now providing coronavirus cases by zip code, information that area officials are warning could be dangerous if residents read into the numbers the wrong way.

The state’s health department started releasing this information this past weekend and will be providing daily updates by zip code, in addition to the race and county coronavirus case breakdowns.

On Monday, the Maryland Department of Health reported 8,936 confirmed coronavirus cases in the state. Of the confirmed cases, one zip code in Baltimore City ranked the highest in the state with 153 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Lanham’s 20706 zip code in Prince George’s County had the second-highest with 143. Then in third, fourth and fifth, came three Silver Spring zip codes in Montgomery County: 20904, 20902 and 20906 respectively. Each had more than 130 cases.  

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The three Silver Spring zip codes include the Kensington, Wheaton, Glenmont and White Oak areas. These are areas known to be more diverse than other portions of the county, like Bethesda and Chevy Chase, two zip codes that both only showed 50 confirmed cases on the state’s health department website Monday.

Montgomery County Councilman Tom Hucker, who represents Silver Spring, tells FOX 5 of several communities of color in his area where many of those community members make up the frontline, essential workers who cannot telework or stay at home.

County leaders already have an idea who are Montgomery County are more at risk when it comes to underlying health conditions, thanks to a Health Disparity report the county released this past December.

However, if looking solely at the zip code, Hucker said there are some missing pieces to reveal any strong patterns just yet. The zip code information does not include the race of those testing positive within that zip code. It does not include the incomes of those patients. The numbers also don’t take into account how heavily populated a zip code is, since some are much larger than others. Lastly, county leaders point out that the zip code is representative of a home address. There’s no information on where the patient may have traveled to work or shop – and whether the virus was contracted outside of their zip code.

“They also shouldn’t draw a conclusion, ‘Oh I live in 20904 and I’m at greater risk.’ You’re not. It’s just a big place. And remember, these are only the cases we know about. We don’t know if I have it or my neighbor has it or my neighbor’s neighbor has it because we all can have this virus without having the symptoms,” said Hucker.

“Now on the flip side of that, what we don’t want people to do is say, ‘I don’t live in one of those zip codes, I must be okay, I must be free to move around.’ Not so much. We know that at this point, there’s widespread community transmission,” said Montgomery County Chief Officer Dr. Travis Gayles.

Gayles said it’s important to know the zip code numbers, while important, are also preliminary data.

On Monday, the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services released the following information: 

 “The population of zip code 20906 is 70,000, and there have been 132 cases, representing .1 percent of the total zip code population. There are 57,000 residents in 20904 and 126 cases, representing .2 percent of the total zip code population. In 20902, there are 48,000 residents and 125 cases, representing 0.2 percent of the total zip code population."

“I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced in an election where they say it’s less than one percent of the data and then they can’t tell you anything. But at a certain point, when you get enough votes in, just like when we get enough cases tested, we’re going to be able to make some really clear predictions. But right now, it’s so few, it’s less than one percent of our folks are really getting tested. We can’t make any predictions,” said Prince George’s County’s Chief Health Officer Dr. Ernest Carter.

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In Prince George’s County, Dr. Carter says the zip codes showing higher numbers of coronavirus cases are areas with higher income residents, who have the financial resources to get tested readily.

That’s why the FedEx Field screening site was opened for those with less access to healthcare, Dr. Carter explained -- because they were seeing such high numbers among those county residents who were getting tested.

Leaders in both counties say Maryland residents will see more true numbers when testing is more readily available. Hucker told FOX 5 Montgomery County has 300 test kits and are expecting 200 more. “We have a million people,” he added, saying it’s not enough.

Dr. Gayles told FOX 5 Montgomery County is working to pair collected county health disparity information with that of their contact investigation information. The goal is to provide more context to the zip code numbers.

Officials tell FOX 5 these zip code numbers show the virus is still spreading. Gayles said the greater Washington D.C. area is still not at its estimated “peak” yet. He’s asking people to stay the course and stay home if possible.