All Marylanders age 16 and up are now eligible to pre-register with the state for a COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced on Thursday. But he cautioned that the Department of Health will continue to prioritize older adults and those with health conditions when scheduling appointments.
At a State House news conference, Hogan also offered a vigorous defense of Dr. Robert Redfield, the former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an unpaid adviser to the governor, from what he said were “disgusting” and politically-based attacks.
The expansion of the state’s pre-registration system comes as the number of vaccination options continues to grow.
For the first time, eligible Maryland residents who lack an appointment will be able to get a vaccine beginning on Friday, when the existing mass-vaccination site in Salisbury adds a “walk-up” line.
The state’s Eastern Shore mass-vax site is located at the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center.
“This is Easter weekend. It’s a big weekend for Ocean City,” Hogan said. “If you haven’t gotten a vaccine and you want one, I would say get in your car [on Friday], drive to the beach, stop in Salisbury, get everybody vaccinated and then go to Ocean City and get some Thrasher’s french fries, stay for the weekend and go to an Easter brunch on Sunday morning.”
While Hogan encouraged Marylanders to pre-register, “our plan is to continue to add additional no-appointment lines at other mass-vaccination sites as well.”
The week of April 12, mass vaccination sites will open at Frederick Community College and at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
The following week, a high-volume site will open at Ripken Stadium in Harford County; the week of April 26, a mass-vax location will open at the Mall in Columbia, in Howard County.
Hogan said the state is moving to vaccinate people as quickly as possible in part because of the rapid spread of COVID-19 variants.
He said 86% of the state’s 677 cases of variant infection are the B.1.1.7 strain, also known as the U.K. variant. Six others have also been detected.
“We are quite literally in a race between these variants and the vaccines,” he said.
Public health officials have said the variants are one reason that infection, positivity and hospitalization rates are on the rise in spite of an increase in vaccinations.
Some public health experts and political leaders have also blamed an easing on business activity and social interactions, but Hogan rejected the suggestion that his March 12 order to relax restrictions was responsible for pushing Maryland’s numbers up.
“We don’t think it had anything to do with re-openings,” he said. Hogan noted that Maryland — unlike many states — has retained its mask mandate.
‘Critics owe Redfield an apology’
Hogan offered a robust defense of Redfield, who served as head of the CDC under President Trump.
Last week Redfield told CNN it was his opinion that COVID-19 “escaped” from a lab in Wuhan, China. His comments triggered angry reactions from Democrats, including several members of the General Assembly and Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), a candidate for governor.
Hogan said it was “outrageous and disgusting” for critics to tie Redfield’s discussion of virus theory to attacks on people of Asian-American descent. “They should probably apologize to Dr. Redfield.”
“He said nothing whatsoever that was inflammatory,” the governor added. “He’s one of the most educated experts on virology in the world.”
Hogan said it was “political nonsense [to] attack him for giving his professional opinion, which I thought he did a very good job of explaining.”
Local leaders ‘need to keep up,’ Hogan says
The governor signaled that he is weary of criticism from local elected officials and health officers regarding the state’s vaccination program and its efforts to reach vulnerable residents.
He told reporters that that “many” jurisdictions have yet to comply with a February request from the state “to produce their own equity plans.”
As a result, the governor said, county health officers have been ordered to submit their plans by Monday.
According to the state Health Department, only 11 counties — Anne Arundel, Caroline, Carroll, Garrett, Howard, Kent, Prince George’s, Frederick, Somerset, St. Mary’s and Wicomico — complied with the original request.
“The state Health Department will also be providing each county with a targeted list of underserved ZIP codes and list of specific congregant facilities in their jurisdictions, which we need them to concentrate their efforts on,” the governor said.
In response to a question, Hogan brushed aside criticism that he drops major announcements on local officials without notice, necessitating a needless scramble.
“Our Health Department talks to their health officers nearly every single day,” the governor said. “We inform them just as decisions are made. … We’re trying to get them to keep up.”
In a statement provided to Maryland Matters, Ed Singer, Carroll County’s health officer and president of the Maryland Association of County Health Officers, pushed back on the idea that the state sought formal plans from the counties or set a deadline for the local health departments to respond.
“Local health departments have been working to ensure equitable distribution in our jurisdictions since we began vaccinating our citizens in late December,” he said. “We work closely with our jurisdictional governments and local community partners to identify means to reach underserved populations. While we have been planning to ensure equitable distribution, no formal request for a specific jurisdictional plan was ever made of the health officers.”
Scott: Don’t become a ‘meme’
Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott (D) on Thursday announced a new pre-registration portal for city residents seeking the COVID-19 vaccine — and he beseeched residents to exercise caution over Easter weekend.
The city’s infection and positivity rates are up significantly from four weeks ago, with 29 cases for every 100,000 residents, higher than the state and national averages, the city’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, told reporters.
In addition, hospital ICU and acute-care units are approaching 90% capacity.
She said “this new surge is different,” because people aged 20-29 and 40-49 are the most impacted.
“Gen Z, Millennials and Gen X are contributing most to the case counts here in the city,” Dzirasa said.
City residents aged 70 and over represent the lowest rate of new infections, which “indicates that vaccines work,” the health commissioner added.
Scott urged residents — young people in particular — to wear masks and limit social interactions over the holiday weekend.
“You are not invincible,” he said. “You can end up on a ventilator just like your grandmother or your grandfather.”
The city on Thursday launched a new Microsoft-based pre-registration portal — covax.baltimorecity.gov — that the duo said offered better functionality than the state’s PrepMod system.
All city residents are now eligible to pre-register and should do so, the mayor said. And he urged them to resist “COVID fatigue.”
“This is not over,” the mayor said. “Don’t become a meme of these folks who are out at these parties with no mask or having events and ending up on someone’s Instagram feed because you were irresponsible.”
The state’s pre-registration site is covidvax.maryland.gov. People who wish to pre-register by phone can call 855-634-6829.