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Maryland ZIP code mapping could be misleading, local health officials fear

"All ZIP codes are not created equal in terms of how many folks live in those areas," officials warn.

WHEATON-GLENMONT, Md. — In Maryland, authorities are cautioning us to be careful drawing conclusions from new ZIP code maps that show where the highest numbers of coronavirus cases are turning up.

The same cautions were issued for county-by-county data showing death rates very high in some places and not others.

Neighborhoods in Maryland with the highest number of cases, according to the ZIP code data from the Maryland Department of Health, include:

  • Northwest Baltimore and some of its northwest suburbs
  • Lanham and Mitchellville in Prince George's County
  • Colesville, White Oak, Silver Spring, Kemp Mill, Wheaton and Aspen Hill including Leisure World in Montgomery County.

Dr. Travis Gayles, the chief health officer in Montgomery County, says answers are not straightforward. 

"It can be a little misleading," Gayles said. "All ZIP codes are not created equal in terms of how many folks live in those areas."

RELATED: These are the ZIP codes with the most coronavirus cases in Maryland

Gayles cautioned the ZIP code data is not adjusted for per capita rates of infection.

For example, some ZIP codes with high numbers also have high populations, while the actual rate of coronavirus per capita may be no worse than other less populated ZIP codes, according to Gayles.

Race, income, age and immigration status are all factors to explore, Gayles said, but the ZIP code maps do not answer those questions.

Before the outbreak, the county conducted its own study of health factors and health outcomes by ZIP code, which may help determine which factors are at play with Covid 19 as more data comes in, Gayles said.

Meanwhile there are areas on the Maryland ZIP code map showing no cases, which Gayles fears may send the wrong message.

"Given that we have evidence this is a pretty significant community-transmitted virus at this point, we don't want folks who live in a ZIP code that does not appear as dark based upon the color coding system to have a false sense of security and say 'Hey, I don’t see cases where I live. I'm free to roam!' That's not true," Gayles said.

There are some places where tragic answers are easier to come by.

Mount Airy Maryland is a hot spot with the highest death rate in the state by far. COVID-19 has ravaged two nursing homes where the vast majority of cases have been concentrated, according to health officials in Carrol County. 

The death from confirmed cases rate is a shocking 11% in the affected ZIP code.

"It's skewed because we have the facility issue," said Maggie Kunz, of the Carrol County Health Department.

Kunz also fears county residents may be lulled into a false sense of security as other areas in her county are clear on the ZIP code maps.

"We want to be transparent, but we want people to understand COVID-19 is spreading in the community and people need to take precautions anywhere they are," she said.

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