How Baltimore Escaped the Worst of COVID-19
by Michael Ollove
Published December 14 in Pew
Excerpt: Dr. Letitia Dzirasa was less than a year into her new job as Baltimore’s health commissioner in February 2020 when she spoke publicly for the first time of a deadly new virus that was metastasizing on the other side of the globe but which, as far as anyone knew, had not gained a foothold in the United States.
Shortly after the news conference, Dzirasa and her husband took a weeklong vacation in the Caribbean. By the time she returned to Baltimore, her top priorities, including the twin epidemics of violence and opioid addiction ravaging the city, were upended by COVID-19.
“I did a press conference on February 5th that probably no one paid attention to,” she recalled last week. “I remember coming back on Presidents’ Day and it was like, ‘Whoa!’ Between that third and fourth week in February, it became more obvious that this was going to be a big deal.”
She didn’t say it at the time, but she feared Baltimore was likely to be struck savagely by the virus. Baltimore is a majority Black city in a country with wide racial health disparities. It has a high poverty rate, a large population of immigrants with low incomes and densely populated neighborhoods full of thousands of workers without a work-from-home option.
On top of all that, Baltimore, like many U.S. cities and counties, has an underfunded public health system—with only about a third of the resources it needs, according to Dzirasa.