Maryland plans to close many of its mass coronavirus vaccination sites around the state in the next six weeks and transfer resources to smaller, more targeted clinics, state officials said Thursday.
Early on in the state’s vaccination campaign, the demand was so high and the supply of vaccine so low that getting an appointment for a shot was difficult and led to creation of Facebook groups and cheat sheets administered by amateurs wanting to help. But vaccine supplies grew and lines dwindled, and most sites opened up to walk-ins.
Though many Marylanders still remain unvaccinated, officials had said the drop in demand would lead to phasing out the large centers.
“I said our goal was to put ourselves out of business at these mass vaccination sites, and as one of the most vaccinated states in the country, we are now approaching that point,” said Gov. Larry Hogan in a statement. “We have already begun shifting some of these resources to our mobile clinics and community-based activities as we continue in our mission to make sure no arm is left behind.”
As of Thursday, 70.3% of Maryland’s adult population has received at least one dose of vaccine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The mass vaccination sites have been open for several months, and their closing will begin in coming weeks in more rural locations in Western Maryland, northern Maryland and the Eastern Shore.
The Hagerstown Premium Outlets site will move to Meritus Hospital beginning June 5, followed by the closure of the site at Leidos Field and Ripken IronBirds Stadium in Aberdeen and the closure of the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center site in Salisbury on June 19.
In Central Maryland, the M&T Bank Stadium site in Baltimore will close July 2 and the sites at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis and the Mall in Columbia will close July 3.
In the Washington suburbs, the Regency Furniture Stadium site in Waldorf will close June 24. Six Flags America Theme Park site in Upper Marlboro will close last on July 17.
The Greenbelt Metro site operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency is closed already.
Many of the sites offer the two-dose Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines and will stop administering first doses soon and only offer second doses or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The state has not determined when it will close mass vaccination sites at the Maryland Fair Grounds in Timonium, Montgomery College in Germantown or a site in Frederick County on Oak Street.
The Baltimore Convention Center, which has served as a mass vaccination site and a field hospital among other pandemic-related uses, will begin the process of closing August 1 but take weeks to fully wind down, according to center officials.
Shots are still available at 700 pharmacies and many doctors’ offices in Maryland, and hospitals and health departments continue to hold regular clinics. Vaccination sites can be found at covidvax.maryland.gov, and officials note that free rides are available through Uber and Lyft and child care is offered.
The state also announced its GoVAx Summer Tour, which will offer vaccine at non-traditional sites such as the Maryland Food Truck Festival in La Plata this Sunday.
All together, the mass sites account for about 1 million of approximately 6.2 million doses administered in the state.
Cases and hospitalizations have dropped significantly since the winter peak, with just 134 cases reported Thursday for a total of 460,194 statewide during the pandemic. About 347 people are hospitalized, down from a mid-January high of more than 1,950.
At this point in the campaign, public health experts say the move to smaller clinics isn’t a bad strategy, so long as the vaccination effort doesn’t wane before more people are fully vaccinated. Though large percentages of older Marylanders have gotten their shots, just less than half of the total population is protected. Those younger than 12 don’t yet qualify for any vaccine.
Continued vaccination will be needed to protect individuals and prevent another wave of cases in the fall, said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a former Maryland health secretary and vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“The key is this does not signal a decline in demand for vaccine, it’s just a decline in demand at these places,” Sharfstein said. “So you have to find the demand and meet it where it is.”
Finding the places where people are not vaccinated will be the challenge, said Dr. William Moss, executive director of the Hopkins public health school’s International Vaccine Access Center.
He said mass sites such as sports stadiums were good to vaccinate large numbers of people in a short time, but when the demand falls it’s “smart to change strategies based on an analysis of why people remain unvaccinated.”
Those reasons broadly include trouble accessing vaccine doses and hesitation to be vaccinated, he said. Mobile clinics and door-to-door efforts are good strategies for the former group, but not the latter.
“For those who have access but do not choose to be vaccinated, more targeted messaging by key influencers is needed,” he said.
Local health departments and hospitals in the state say they plan to continue targeting all the unvaccinated.
Lisa DeHernandez, a spokeswoman for the Howard County Health Department, said the Mall in Columbia served a lot of Maryland residents, but only 10% were from the county. Officials plan to keep vaccinating people at the department and at Howard Community College, but also offer pop-up clinics in neighborhoods, restaurants, farmer’s markets, food banks, hotels, churches and other places where people can be persuaded to get a shot.
“We will continue to focus on these types of clinics into the future where we can provide vaccine that is easy and convenient for our residents,” she said.
In Baltimore, officials already had been working to identify those who couldn’t or wouldn’t get a shot and send vaccine to them, a more labor-intensive though slower approach to make distribution of vaccine more equitable.
In the state, a disproportionate number of minorities have been infected with COVID-19 and died. Yet, vaccinations of Black and Hispanic residents continue to lag white residents.
Dr. Kendra McDow, Baltimore City Health Department’s chief medical officer, said the targeted efforts will continue.
“The summer months will see an increase in the number of mobile and pop-up vaccination clinics available, reaching residents who may want one of the vaccines but were unable to visit a mass vaccination site,” she said. The health department “continues to work with our clinical partners and staff, utilizing ZIP code-level vaccination data to set up clinics in areas of the city with the lower vaccination coverage to ensure the equitable distribution of the vaccines to Baltimore City residents.”
The University of Maryland Medical System, which helps operate mass sites in Baltimore, also will continue other vaccination efforts that involve partnering with local community groups.
Michael Schwartzberg, a spokesman for UMMS, said the system launched a mobile vaccine initiative in March that includes eight mobile vans to serve the city and counties served by its 11 acute care hospitals.
Together, 90 mobile clinics already have provided 10,000 shots, he said. Another 50 clinics are scheduled.
For the mass sites, shutting vaccination clinics means a return to normal activities such as games and meetings that are now permitted, though some still with local restrictions.
The state began using the Baltimore Convention Center in March 2020 as a 250-bed field hospital for COVID-19 patients, a storage facility for personal protective equipment and a COVID testing and vaccination site. City agencies also used it to store food boxes distributed to families.
Peggy Daidakis, the center’s executive director, said it will take about six weeks after the August 1 ending date to demobilize the hospital and rebuild the facility for convention and meeting use.
Daidakis made the announcement during a budget hearing Wednesday before a Baltimore City Council committee. She said the vaccine and testing sites, as well as the city warehouse use, will continue until Oct. 1.
As those other operations wind down, she said, the center will able to accommodate some events in meetings rooms and ballrooms and two such events already are planned.
“We need to give people confidence to bring their meetings and conventions back,” she said, “and that is what we’re hoping to do.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Lorraine Mirabella contributed to this article.