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Nearly 30,000 New COVID Cases After Maryland Cyber Attack

In the two weeks following a cyber attack against the state’s Department of Health servers, more than 28,500 residents have tested positive. The system was taken offline as a precaution but not all data was restored immediately.

(TNS) — More than 28,500 Marylanders tested positive for COVID-19 during the two weeks since Maryland Department of Health servers were taken offline following a cyberattack and state officials reported little data.

The state restored some data reporting Monday, the same day as Gov. Larry Hogan reported that he had tested positive for the virus.

Some figures, such as how many people have died and where infections were logged and their ages and demographics, still have not been updated.

State security officials said little about the ongoing investigation during a news conference Monday, such as whether the attack was ransomware or another threat. But officials said the servers were taken down “out of an abundance of caution” and carefully restored as not to reinfect systems that perform a host of functions beyond collecting data.

“We thought cases were important,” said Chip Stewart, Maryland’s chief information security officer. “And we brought them back as soon as we felt the numbers were accurate enough to share with the public.”

The lack of information, particularly on cases and testing, had worried public health officials and angered lawmakers, as officials acknowledged the importance of the data.

“I want to thank the team of people who have been working diligently over the past 16 days to bring our COVID-19 data reporting back online,” state Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader said in a statement. “This data is critical to our keeping the public informed and to further drive our COVID fighting operations.”

The positive tests reflect a seven-day average positivity rate of 10.27 percent, nearly twice what it was when it was last reported Dec. 3 and more than double the international standard of 5 percent that reflects adequate testing.

Consumers looking for tests ahead of Christmas and New Year’s events have reported long lines at testing sites and rapid tests have been difficult to come by, though some local health departments have begun dispensing them at testing sites, libraries and elsewhere.

There now have been 621,220 cases of COVID-19 recorded in Maryland, which along with other states, is seeing a surge in cases linked to the dominant delta variant and possibly the rapidly transmitting omicron variant.

The state had been reporting some data, such as hospitalizations, which reached 1,345 Monday, 88 more than Sunday. That’s up from fewer than 500 in mid-November and at a level not seen since early February.

The jump in cases is pointing to what’s ahead, said Matthew Frieman, a longtime coronavirus researcher and a professor in the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

“The increase in Maryland is consistent with what is being seen in other parts of the country and the world,” he said. “These numbers are increasing even without omicron present at high levels. This will only increase through the next weeks as omicron takes off through our community. We need to have everyone vaccinated that is eligible and those that are already vaccinated, to be boosted. This is the only way to reduce virus in our community and keep hospitals at levels where they can handle patients.”

State officials also are urging people to be vaccinated, get booster shots and seek testing ahead of gatherings or if they show symptoms. Many public health officials say people should continue or return to wearing masks indoors.

Lawmakers were pleased to see some data restored, but some still had questions about the cyberattack.

Del. Kirill Reznik sent off a letter Friday to Schrader asking for an update on the state’s data collection and coronavirus dashboard. He received a response Monday morning saying the state was working on it, just before some of the data was posted.

”Even if it’s not fully restored, at least it’s progress, which is something we haven’t seen for the past two weeks,” said Reznik, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Reznik had been worried that the state could be in for a nightmare situation, with people traveling and attending gatherings for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays without enough information to gauge their risk of contracting or spreading the coronavirus.

Even so, Reznik wanted to know when the rest of the data would be posted and when other health department functions — including medical licensing boards — will be restored. And those were questions state security officials addressed by saying only “soon.”

With testing hard to come by and questions about whether people are reporting the results of rapid tests, state Sen. Paul Pinsky questioned just how helpful case count and positivity rate information was.

”Who gets tested, why they get tested and if it gets reported — it’s really slapdash,” said Pinsky, adding: “It’s no one’s fault.”

The case data is a start, but it would be helpful for people to know how many are dying from the virus and where the outbreaks are occurring, said Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat who chairs the Senate’s health committee.

”I applaud as much data as they can share with the public,” he said. “Some people are going to change their behaviors and some aren’t. Some are getting even more blasé.”

Pinsky has been critical of the lack of information coming out about the cyberattack and the missing data. He went on Twitter over the weekend to ask whether the Republican governor and his team had gone “AWOL” on the crucial matter.

”My question is: Where’s Larry?” Pinsky asked. “When it’s not such great news, he’s under the table, he’s hiding. He had a press conference about the hospitals and the surge, but he’s not once explained about the hack.”

Beth Blauer, data lead for the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, said Maryland had been a leader in reporting information and continued to provide daily updates after other states had stopped. She expressed sympathy for IT and health department workers who she said clearly didn’t want to stop reporting data.

But, without the data, local health and hospital officials were left not knowing “what they should be bracing for,” Blauer said. And a lack of data becomes a “matter of trust” when people are asked to take new precautions without knowing the extent of the crisis.

She said the state health department has modelers and epidemiologists who could have made estimates based on data that was being collected. The state, for example, previously restored contact tracing efforts, so there was information about who tested positive around the state.

“The public in some cases is being asked to move to virtual school this week or required to wear masks in public spaces, all mitigating strategies we know are effective,” Blauer said. “But they created public policy infrastructure without the data, and it calls into question the legitimacy. If people are asked to make sacrifices they want to know why.”

State Sen. Katie Fry Hester, who is co-chair of a joint cybersecurity committee, said the effects of the cyberattack reach beyond the coronavirus dashboard. She’s heard from constituents needing help getting medication through a state HIV program and state hospital employees having to use fax machines to order supplies because email has been down.

And with the Hogan administration providing little, if any, information, it’s been difficult to help people, Hester said.

”I would just really request that the administration have a more open dialogue with the legislature, because we are on the front lines of helping our constituents, and we can’t help if we can’t get information,” said Hester, a Democrat representing parts of Howard and Carroll counties.

Hester said the cyberattack underscores the need for the state to centralize and modernize its information technology systems — a task that could be made easier with the influx of federal dollars coming to the state. Hester said she plans to urge Hogan’s team to put money in the next state budget to shore up the state agency IT systems.

In the meantime, she’s glad that at least part of the coronavirus data is being made public again.

”I’m very grateful that the case data is reported again,” she said. “It’s really high and that’s a bit worrisome.”

Maryland’s December COVID-19 surge: What we know and don’t know

What we know

  • New cases since Dec. 3: 28,500 (new)
  • Seven-day average testing positivity rate: 10.29 percent (new)
  • Hospitalizations: 1,345 (highest since Feb. 8)

What we don’t

  • New deaths
  • Geographic data on where new cases are occurring in Maryland
  • Demographic data such as age, gender and race on who is testing positive

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