Maryland has six weeks to vaccinate as many vulnerable and hard-to-reach residents as possible, the state’s acting Heath secretary acknowledged on Monday.
After that, the opening of the vaccine floodgates to hundreds of thousands — and perhaps millions — of other people will greatly complicate what has already been a difficult task.
“We have to get this to scale by May 1, because after May 1… we’re going to have all these other people qualified,” Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s) told acting Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader. “If we don’t get our shit together now, we’re not going to get our shit together later.”
Rosapepe, a member of the state Senate’s Vaccine Work Group, was referring to President Biden’s recommendation last week that states make COVID-19 vaccinations to the general population at the beginning of May.
“I don’t disagree with you,” Schrader responded. “We’re on the same page.”
The state’s vaccination program focused initially on first-responders, health care workers and nursing home residents. Since then, it has tended to benefit people with computers, solid internet access, flexible job schedules and access to a car.
Three of the state mass-vaccination sites are in majority-Black jurisdictions — Baltimore City and Prince George’s and Charles counties — but many of the doses administered at those sites have gone to people of means from surrounding communities.
On Monday, the state Department of Health announced that 2,100 doses per week at each of the five “mass-vax” sites will be set aside for the people who live in that general area.
On Tuesday, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) will visit a new “Vaccine Equity Task Force vaccination clinic” at First Baptist Church of Glenarden, a site requested by Alsobrooks.
Rosapepe also pressed Schrader to commit to boosting the vaccination rate in Prince George’s at least to the state average. The county has trailed other large jurisdictions badly since the rollout began.
A chart legislators were shown on Monday put the Prince George’s first-dose rate at about 11%, roughly half what it is in Howard, the state’s most-vaccinated county (despite the lack of a high-volume site there).
Rosapepe called it “ridiculous” that the second-largest county in the state — the county that had the most COVID infections — is “so far behind every place else. I know people are trying. But I just think we need a plan with metrics and goals.”
“I’m not for micro-anecdotes,” he added, a reference to Tuesday’s photo-op at the new Glenarden location. “I’m talking about a strategy that’s macro.”
Schrader said the county and state are “working very closely” and have a “very good working relationship.”
He said he believes the state’s increased outreach to community-based organizations will generate “momentum” — and that “word of mouth will start to spread, and the demand will go up.”
Rosapepe rejected Schrader’s premise — that the issue in Prince George’s is primarily about hesitancy or a general lack of desire by the public.
“Mr. Secretary, we’ve had this conversation before,” the lawmaker countered. “The demand is there in Prince George’s County. People are on waiting lists. They’re just not getting the shots. Organization and delivery is the issue.”
On Saturday the governor’s office announced the creation of a pre-registration system for the five high-volume locations, something county health officers, political leaders, members of Congress and residents have sought for weeks.
It will not be a first-come, first-served system, according to a press release. Instead, it will seek to prioritize pre-registrations based on multiple factors, including race, ethnicity, age and health status.
“The system that they put into place is one that we adopted months ago,” said Montgomery County Health Officer Travis A. Gayles in an interview Monday.
“It has been successful in terms of allowing us to move through the prioritization groups as well as making sure that there is some equity consideration, as opposed to just building a system that’s first-come, first-served,” he added.
Gayles is vice-president of the Maryland Association of County Health Officers, the group that spearheaded the request for a more centralized process several weeks ago.
Schrader: Profiling is ‘unacceptable’
Schrader said he was aware of allegations made last week by the Vaccine Hunters, a group of internet-scouring Montgomery County teachers that has helped thousands of people.
The group said they have been asked to assist in multiple incidents in which people of color have been asked to show documents at private-sector vaccination sites. White customers were not asked for additional paperwork, the group charged.
Schrader said he has ordered an investigation.
“Obviously we’re not happy about hearing these reports,” the secretary said. “That’s unacceptable.”
Sen. Mary L. Washington (D-Baltimore City) asked Schrader about photographs showing young people who will be serving as camp counselors getting vaccinated.
“None of those are meeting.. societal impact” of the virus, she said. “They’re bragging about it on Facebook.”
Schrader said there is a “moral dimension” to vaccinations and that people need to wait their turn.
“We’re not going to police the vaccine centers,” he said. “I’m just hoping that people will do the moral thing.”
Under the set-aside process announced on Monday, 2,100 of the doses administered at the mass-vax site in Waldorf will go to the residents of Southern Maryland; the same number of doses in Salisbury will be reserved for Eastern Shore counties; and the same number of the Hagerstown doses will be set-aside for Washington, Allegany and Garrett.
Schrader’s nomination to become permanent Health secretary is pending in the Senate, but Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) has said his nomination won’t be considered until lawmakers are satisfied with the state’s rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines. On Friday, Ferguson told reporters that senators weren’t yet ready to act on the nomination.