Appointments at Maryland’s COVID-19 mass-vaccination sites will be managed by a new web portal beginning in March, the state’s acting health secretary announced on Monday.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and his health chief, Dennis R. Schrader have resisted calls for a state-run sign-up system, but Schrader told lawmakers that “the new pre-registration system will improve the user experience, and better prepare for the day when supplies are very abundant.”
Maryland has two mass-vax sites — at the Baltimore Convention Center and at Six Flags America in Largo. A third, at M&T Bank Stadium, opens on Thursday and others are planned for Western Maryland, Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, though sites have not been chosen, Schrader told the state Senate’s COVID Vaccine Work Group.
The new portal will not schedule appointments at pharmacies, local health departments or hospitals.
Lawmakers did not react to the news about the new sign-up system, but they did voice concern about a briefing they received regarding the state’s efforts to vaccinate the most vulnerable.
Despite a concerted push to get people of color vaccinated against COVID-19, the state is not making progress — and may be losing ground.
African-Americans make up slightly more than 30% of Maryland’s population but only account for around 15% of the vaccines that have been administered, legislative analyst Michael Powell said.
He also said that the overall distribution numbers are slightly below the levels from the two weeks prior, a condition likely brought on by inclement weather.
But it was the lack of progress in the state’s non-white vaccination rates that troubled leaders most.
Sen. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City) said that because the state has yet to figure out how to reach people of color, the expansion of vaccination sites is only going to “increase the disparity.”
“The more access points you create, no matter where they are in the state, if you do nothing else, it’s going to be worse. The disparity is worse,” she said.
Schrader insisted that the department remains committed to its minority outreach. He said the state has partnered with a large church in Prince George’s, the state’s largest majority-Black county, and has delivered vaccination messages using sound trucks in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods.
“We have the same concerns,” he said. “We’re not going to rest until we crack this nut.”
Although the state has attempted to reach Prince George’s residents by phone, residents of Montgomery and Howard are taking up the most and second-most slots at Six Flags, Schrader said.
State officials have said that vaccine hesitancy is a key source of Maryland’s lagging minority vaccination numbers. Washington swatted that explanation aside, saying the state is “blaming the victim.”
Lawmakers also pressed the secretary on Maryland’s overall vaccine-use rate, which continues to trail other states badly.
On Monday, Maryland’s use-rate was 76.7%, putting it 48th, ahead of only Alabama and Tennessee, according to Bloomberg’s tracking site.
“Clearly there are other states that are doing this better than we are,” said Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s). “We need to learn from them. Because week after week after week, Maryland is way behind other states.”
Schrader blamed a “data-lag” at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an explanation that appeared not to satisfy the committee.
“I’ve been focusing my attention on getting the vaccines out,” he added. “To be honest with you, I’m reluctant to distract people focusing on data and analysis and competition with other states.”
Schrader refused to directly answer a question from Sen. Clarence Lam (D-Howard), who sought confirmation that the Department of Health has an $11 million contract with Ernst & Young to improve its vaccination sign-up and distribution system.
The agency’s top official, who before becoming secretary served as director of operations, Schrader said he was unaware of the contract’s specific terms. He acknowledged that the company is helping in a variety of ways, including “getting very close, operationally, to the supply chain. They have a national perspective.”
“They’re doing a fantastic job,” he added. “They’ve helped us to unravel some of the mysteries of the federal allocation and accounting system.”
The Ernst & Young contract, being an emergency procurement, has yet to go before the Board of Public Works. Schrader said he would try to have more information next week.
The secretary said the department is closing in on an update to its vaccination software system, PrepMod, that will prevent residents from sharing sign-up email links, which has caused confusion and backups at county distribution sites.
He also touted a phone system that people can call to get information about vaccine availability and sign-up for appointments at the mass-vax sites. The number is 855-MDGOVAX (855-634-6829).
The line, which operates in English and Spanish, is available from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week, he said. The line received nearly 30,000 calls on Friday alone. More than 2,000 appointments were booked.