If a third COVID-19 vaccine is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration later this month, as expected, Maryland will soon be in a position to vaccinate tens of thousands of people each day, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. said on Monday.
The state’s COVID-19 vaccine operation, he boasted, is improving every day and will be able to kick into high gear — and protect more people — as soon as the state can get its hands on more doses.
Until that day comes, he conceded, residents will continue to be frustrated by the relative scarcity of vaccines.
Though Hogan did not say so, it is also likely that tensions between government leaders — particularly between state and local officials, and between the governor and Maryland’s congressional delegation — will remain high as well.
Monday brought an escalation of those tensions.
County leaders expressed anger at having doses redirected to the state’s mass vaccination centers, state lawmakers hammered Hogan’s acting health chief over Maryland’s scattershot sign-up system, and Hogan fired back at members of Congress, sending lawmakers a caustic letter in reply to their recent criticism of him.
A common thread through much of the strained relations was the growing evidence that the current system is working to the benefit of those who entered the pandemic with economic advantages — and that those who’ve been harmed the most by the crisis are being shortchanged again.
Hogan tours vaccine sites
Eager to show that things are improving, Hogan toured three vaccination sites on Monday with reporters in tow.
He did a walk-through of Baltimore County’s new mass-vaccination operation at the State Fairgrounds in Timonium with County Executive Johnny A. Olszewski Jr. (D).
He toured the Baltimore Convention Center, a newly-opened mass-vax center operated by the state.
And he visited Emergent BioSolutions’ Bayview facility in East Baltimore, where the Johnson & Johnson vaccine candidate is being manufactured.
“Everybody’s trying to do everything we can to increase the amount of vaccine,” Hogan told reporters outside the plant. “And that’s the hopeful part.”
“We’re still concerned that we’re not getting enough,” he added.
The governor said repeatedly he understands the frustration felt by people who haven’t been able to secure an appointment for themselves or a loved one.
Need for multiple sign-ups is criticized
Despite the governor’s claims that better days are ahead, state lawmakers and local officials called Maryland’s vaccination program chaotic and confusing.
During a meeting of the state Senate’s Covid Vaccine Work Group, lawmakers told Acting Health Secretary Dennis Schrader that residents are frustrated by the lack of a centralized sign-up.
“Why do Marylanders need to go to the Walgreens website, the CVS website, the Giant website, the Hopkins website, the [University of Maryland Medical System] website, and the local health department websites to sign up, to get on different waiting lists?” asked Sen. Clarence Lam (D-Howard). “Why can’t there be a single line here in the state?”
Schrader said only four states have such an approach. “We’re in line with the other 46,” he said, adding that the four — Oklahoma, New Hampshire, New Mexico and West Virginia — “are mostly white states. We believe that what we’re doing is more equitable.”
Pressed by Lam, Schrader warned that a statewide sign-up portal “would not be in our best interests… because there’s a very high risk we could create a single point of failure.”
During a tour of the Six Flags site on Monday, U.S. Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.) also stressed the need for a single sign-up process.
Several lawmakers said the current system rewards those with tech savvy, flexible schedules and “fast fingers” who can gobble up appointments as soon as they come open.
“We don’t really want a game of the Hunger Games going on to be able to get an appointment,” Lam said.
Dr. Raymond Crowel, head of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, said “a one-stop sign-up would be an ideal frame for us to have, provided that is has some considerations for addressing equity.”
Crowel was one of several Montgomery leaders who spoke to reporters on Monday.
County Council vice-chairman Gabe Albornoz (D) called the current registration system “immensely frustrating.”
“I think is leading to inefficiency. It’s leading to inequity. And it’s leading to confusion and chaos out within the community that is growing frustration to a level that I have not seen in 14 years of being in government,” he added.
Schrader told the Senate panel the issue is more about “supply, not the technology.”
Holding onto second doses
The two vaccines that have been approved — produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — require two doses. And Schrader told lawmakers Maryland is holding a significant percentage of its doses for people who’ve had their first shot.
Maryland has used 67% of its on-hand supply, a rate that lags behind 37 other states and Guam, according to Bloomberg.
Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s) accused the department of “creating an artificial shortage — of encouraging the folks who have them to hoard them.”
Schrader rejected that charge.
“Every one of those second doses that’s been received has somebody’s name on it,” he said. “When we give a first dose to an individual, we feel ethically compelled to ensure that that individual gets their second dose.”
“The federal government didn’t put the name on it, Mr. Secretary,” Rosapepe shot back. “That’s a policy that you’re pursuing that is different from other states… and explains why we have greater shortages of doses than other states, so I would just personally urge you to reconsider that.”
Schrader said the health department feels “very strongly” that it needs to hold onto second doses until they are needed, which he described as being in line with federal recommendations.
Council President Tom Hucker (D) said Montgomery County was angered that its weekly allotment from the state was reduced from 5,500 to 4,500, with no explanation.
County leaders from across Maryland have expressed suspicion that doses are being redirected to the state’s new mass-vaccination sites at Six Flags America in Prince George’s County and at the Baltimore Convention Center.
“We weren’t getting enough to begin with,” Hucker said. “And obviously this only makes things more difficult.”
Schrader said that the state recently received an increase in its allotment from the federal government — from 72,000 doses to 88,000 — a big enough increase to handle, for now, the 14,000 doses per week that officials expect to use at the mass-vax sites.
“It still sounds like you’re saying that we’re going to get less in each of the jurisdictions,” said a skeptical Sen. Ronald Young (D-Frederick).
Montgomery County, which is home to one in six Maryland residents, has asked the state to designate its fairgrounds, in Gaithersburg, to serve as a mass-vaccination site, but has not received a response, Hucker said.
Schrader told the Senate panel that Maryland expects the Prince George’s site, located 30 miles from Rockville, to suffice.
“We’re getting a lot of Montgomery County residents going already to the Six Flags site,” he said. “Quite a number of them have signed up for that.”
Not surprisingly, that answer didn’t sit well with Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D).
“That’s ridiculous,” Elrich told Maryland Matters. “That doesn’t make any sense. Six Flags is so far away from most people in Montgomery County that it is not funny.”
He said a far-flung site will disadvantage people without computer literacy, flexible schedules and access to cars.
“We need a site here or give us the vaccines so we can do the vaccinations,” he added. “[The county health department] can bring the vaccines closer to the people here. I don’t need them to provide personnel. I don’t need them to do anything other than send us doses of vaccine.”
Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, distributed a chart showing that county health departments have administered 90.2% of their first doses — and that Montgomery has delivered 80.1%, with approximately 7,000 still on hand.
“Local health departments are one facet of an expanding distribution network,” he wrote.
“Allocations are distributed to each county equitably based on population across all providers. For example, to help boost capacity in the county, we reached a separate agreement with Suburban Hospital to help vaccinate the elderly and educators. Suburban will get another 2,500 doses this week.”
Sen. Addie Eckhardt (R-Lower Shore) told Schrader reductions in distributions to Eastern Shore counties had disrupted plans for seniors who had signed up with their health departments.
“Anybody can go over to the Walmart and get their vaccine. There is no regard for honoring the tiers,” she said, a reference to the phases that prioritize older persons.
“Folks are furious, absolutely furious, in my jurisdiction,” Eckhardt said. “Because they believe they are being short-changed, because they’ve been patiently waiting in line.”
On Monday the Anne Arundel County Department of Health announced that all COVID-19 second dose vaccination clinics scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday were canceled, due to the lack of vaccine arrival from the Maryland Department of Health. Approximately 7,000 second dose vaccines have been delayed over the past two weeks, but delivery is expected this week, county officials said. First dose clinics in the county were unaffected by the delay.
Hogan fires back at federal lawmakers
Maryland providers have now administered 699,733 COVID-19 vaccines, Hogan announced on Monday, with 84.3% of all first doses received from the federal government having been given.
In a letter to the Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation, the governor defended the state’s distribution strategy, saying it was in sync with recommendations from President Biden and various public health experts.
“Our planning, decision-making, and public messaging on this issue has been in lockstep with President Biden’s COVID-19 plan and CDC guidance,” Hogan wrote. “How did you not know this?”
“Given that both the creation of the pharmacy transfer program and the recommendation to open vaccinations to individuals over 65 are actions taken at the federal level, I respectfully suggest that you address your apparent concerns to the President and his team.”
In a letter to Hogan last week, lawmakers suggested a “course correction” to get more vaccines administered and to prioritize communities of color.
Noting that Maryland now provides an average of 22,000 shots per day, with more than 2,000 distribution points across the state, Hogan rejected the lawmakers’ suggestion.
“We will not rest until every Marylander who wants a vaccine can get a vaccine,” the governor wrote. “You can be a part of this incredible undertaking, or you can criticize it from the cloakroom.”