‘It’s Like Winning the Lottery’: Maryland Opens Two Mass Vax Sites

Kerri Shepet, a Howard County elementary school teacher, received a COVID-19 vaccine on the first day of a state mass vaccination site at Six Flags America in Prince George's County. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

Maryland’s efforts to protect residents from COVID-19 got a shot in the arm on Friday with the opening of two new mass vaccination sites, one in Prince George’s County and one in downtown Baltimore.

Approximately 350 people were vaccinated on the first day of operations, which Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) described as a “soft launch,” akin to what a new restaurant might do before throwing open the doors.

Hogan toured the Prince George’s site, at Six Flags America, with County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D). Around 250 people got vaccinated in tents erected by the Maryland National Guard.

Another 100 people received their doses at the Baltimore Convention Center. That site is being run by the University of Maryland Medical System and Johns Hopkins Medicine.

The Six Flags site is managed by the Maryland Department of Health, Kaiser Permanente and Guard personnel.

“It was like winning the lottery,” said Kerri Shepet, a 4th grade teacher in Howard County, as she sat in her car, inching forward toward the head of the line.

“We are extremely grateful to have this mass-vaccination site for teachers, because we’re heading [back to the classroom] in a matter of weeks,” she said. “I was very fearful that I was going to have to go back into the classroom without being fully vaccinated.”

Shepet said her husband had little expectation of getting an appointment for her when he sat down at the computer on Thursday. “I had been hitting brick walls for weeks,” she said. “Once we got in, it was very easy to use.”

A woman who gave her name as Marian said she was “very pleased” that she was able to get online and secure a slot for her 79-year-old aunt, Mary, who has a heart condition. “I was amazed, actually. I just signed up yesterday.”

“It was important to me that she gets the vaccine,” Marian added. “I’m her go-to.”

Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) tour a state mass vaccination site that opened Friday at Six Flags Great America in Prince George’s County. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

The state chose Six Flags and the convention center for Maryland’s first mass vaccination sites in part because they are located in the state’s largest majority-Black communities. Vaccination rates in minority communities have lagged.

Hogan assured Alsobrooks that 40% of the appointments at Six Flags will be reserved for Prince George’s residents. He said his office worked off a waiting-list provided by the county prior to opening the Six Flags site.

The results were uneven, he appeared to acknowledge.

“Many people in Black and Brown communities are refusing to take the vaccine,” he told reporters. “We hired outside contractors that made several thousand calls over the past several days to try to get them scheduled first.”

“I’m not sure how many of them actually got signed up,” Hogan added. “Some people didn’t want — didn’t get in touch with, or didn’t get back or didn’t get scheduled, but they certainly had first crack at it before the site went live.”

Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R) will tour the site on Saturday. The Maryland Department of Health’s public service announcements, which are airing on local stations, feature several prominent African-Americans, including Rutherford, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, and Bishop Walter Scott Thomas of New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore.

Hogan said the state will continue to stress that the vaccines are safe and effective.

Reps. Anthony G. Brown (D) and Steny H. Hoyer (D), who represent the county in the U.S. House, urged the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Friday to open a federal vaccination site in Prince George’s.

And they slammed the state’s vaccination program, calling it “haphazard and decentralized.”

“The state of Maryland’s vaccine program thus far has been especially uncoordinated,” the lawmakers wrote to acting FEMA Regional Director Janice Barlow. “The state’s decentralized strategy and lack of guidance have left counties competing with one another for resources and vaccine doses.”

President Biden has authorized at least 100 vaccination sites across the nation, and Maryland has been selected to receive FEMA support, the lawmakers said in a news release.

“Only 3.5% of Prince George’s population has been vaccinated – by far the lowest vaccination rate across Maryland’s counties,” Brown and Hoyer wrote. “Prince George’s County would benefit greatly from a federally coordinated and easily accessible site.”

Hogan said that thousands of appointments were scheduled on a new website in less than half an hour on Friday morning.

“We did launch a brand-new soft-launch of a test site this morning,” he said. “We didn’t even hardly tell anybody about it because we wanted to slowly test out the system. The bad news is we filled up all the available slots. But the good news is we scheduled 10,000 slots in the first 20 minutes when we turned it on at 8 o’clock this morning.”

Maryland residents can receive updates on appointments by texting ‘MdReady’ to 898-211.

Hogan said the state will open two additional mass vaccination sites next week. State officials are still finalizing locations in Western and Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.