New Vaccine Sign-up a ‘Start,’ But More Is Needed, Officials Say

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For weeks, state legislators and local leaders have pleaded with the Maryland Department of Health to institute a sign-up system for its COVID-19 vaccination program.

On Saturday, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced a partial, but significant step in that direction — the creation of a new pre-registration system for Maryland’s five mass-vaccination sites.

Marylanders in Phase 1 can pre-register at covidvax.maryland.gov or by calling the state’s COVID-19 vaccination support center, at 1-855-MD-GOVAX (1-855-634-6829).

State lawmakers and others said the move represented a good, but overdue, first step. Some suggested that local health departments should have been made a part of the new system.

According to news release circulated on Saturday, Marylanders who pre-register will be notified once an appointment is available. They will then be asked to verify their pre-registration status and reserve an appointment.

The state stressed that appointments will not be doled out on a first-come, first-serve basis. “To help ensure vaccine equity, appointments will be released based on eligibility and supply,” the unsigned news release stated.

People who pre-register with the state can (and probably should) put their names on other lists as well.

Local health officers, county leaders, state lawmakers, members of Congress and residents have pressed the Hogan administration for weeks to institute a statewide sign-up system.

They complained that the current system essentially forced vaccine-seekers to sign-up in multiple places — including pharmacy chains, supermarkets, their local health department and elsewhere — spending long hours on the computer in the process.

Many said the result was a “Hunger Games”-style competition that benefited those with computers, reliable internet service, flexible work schedules and technological savvy. The COVID pandemic has disproportionately impacted people of color, lower-income Marylanders and people with jobs that require contact with the public.

Saturday’s statement gave no explanation for the apparent about-face.

“We’ve all got a lot to gain by working together to improve the front-end process for people seeking a vaccination,” said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

He said that if local health departments are “able to piggyback on this state system” in the future, it “might simplify things for lots of Marylanders seeking shots.”

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman (R) offered a similar thought.

“It’s certainly a step forward and will hopefully help the state centralize all registrations on a consolidated site to relieve folks from having to surf several sites,” he said.

Acting Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader briefs the state Senate’s Vaccine Work Group every week. Despite repeated calls for a more centralized sign-up process, Schrader has defended Maryland’s approach, saying that a statewide portal risked becoming “a single point of failure.”

Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard), a physician and a member of the panel, called the new system “a positive development” but he said it does not go far enough to simplify the process.

“After nearly two months since my colleagues and I in the Senate suggested a single registration site, this is a long overdue improvement,” he said.

“While this is a positive development, it is only limited to the handful of the state’s mass vaccination sites and unfortunately still leaves out the thousands of other vaccine providers in the state from a single sign-up process, which we continue to hear frustration from our constituents about on a daily basis.”

Residents who pre-register will be asked to provide demographic information, including gender, race and ethnicity. They will be asked to indicate a preferred location and whether they have special needs, such as language services, assistive technology or help with transportation.

The state currently has five mass-vaccination sites. They are located in Baltimore, Largo, Salisbury, Hagerstown and Waldorf.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), the chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said, “I welcome the centralized vaccination approach. My only question: why has it taken three months of chaos and a ‘go it alone approach’ to get to this point?”

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