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Maryland to open COVID vaccine eligibility to all adults, starting Tuesday at mass vaccination sites

The state reports that about a third of residents are fully vaccinated.

Everyone in Maryland who is 16 or older will be eligible next week to get the coronavirus vaccine at any site offering shots in the state, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Monday.

And people 16 and older can get shots this week, starting Tuesday, at the state’s five mass vaccination sites. The state will require the hundreds of other vaccine providers in Maryland to offer shots to adults and older teenagers, a total of almost 4.9 million people, as of April 12.

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Teens who are 16 and 17 — about 150,000 people in Maryland, according to census figures — can only get shots at sites offering the Pfizer vaccine, one of three authorized in the United States. That’s because it’s the only vaccine approved for people in that age group.

The Republican governor cautioned that newly eligible Marylanders will need to be patient.

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“Even through we’re opening up eligibility for everyone, that does not mean everyone will be able to immediately get an appointment,” he said at a news conference in Annapolis. “But with the supply of doses increasing over the next month or so, a vaccine should be available for everyone who wants one.”

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures show there have been 3.1 million doses administered in Maryland, though two of the three vaccines authorized for use require two shots. That puts the state in the middle of the pack for vaccinations by population.

Hogan emphasized that getting large numbers of people vaccinated will be key to resuming many normal activities, especially as more contagious strains of the virus spread.

”We are literally in a race between the vaccines and these new, highly transmissible variants, which are driving an increase in new infections and hospitalizations, particularly among younger people in states across the country,” he said.

Cases in Maryland ticked up this month, but so has availability of vaccine, and Hogan in recent weeks had already accelerated the timeline for vaccine eligibility.

“We’re now able to move more quickly because we’ve been getting increased supply and because we’ve built the infrastructure,” Hogan said. “We saw this coming, which is why we started the preregistration last week to get ready and geared up.”

The state was in phase 2B of its vaccine eligibility plan as of Monday, which included people with certain underlying health conditions. They were added to the millions of Marylanders who previously qualified, from health workers and nursing home residents and staff to teachers and essential government and industry workers.

Hogan previously said that all Marylanders age 16 and over could get shots starting April 27.

The state will have 12 mass vaccination sites by month’s end, including three opening this week. That’s in addition to continuing to push out vaccine through 24 local health departments, dozens of hospitals, about 500 pharmacies and other facilities.

Also, the state is expanding walk-up options at mass vaccination sites. The Wicomico Youth & Civic Center in Salisbury started accepting people without appointments last week, and a vaccination site at the Premium Outlets in Hagerstown will accept walk-ups starting Tuesday. The site at M & T Bank Stadium in Baltimore will follow suit next week.

Maryland joins about a dozen states that have opened vaccinations to people age 16 and up, with the bulk of other states planning to open by month’s end or next month.

Opening eligibility in general is “the right approach,” especially when there is enough vaccine that some could go unused otherwise, said Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore City health commissioner and professor of public health at George Washington University in Washington.

“But now, the goal needs to also be to make vaccination accessible and convenient,” she said. “There need to be far more places to access vaccines, including all primary care doctors’ offices, community pharmacies and vaccination sites at workplaces, churches, and other settings to bring vaccines to where people are.”

The move to open eligibility is “reasonable” considering cases are rising in younger people, agreed Dr. Eric Toner, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a pandemic preparedness expert.

”There still need to be special efforts to reach the prior priority groups. But if supply is sufficient, it is good to get younger people vaccinated,” he said. “My understanding is that vaccine supply should be increasing considerably in the coming weeks.”

The advocacy group for seniors, AARP Maryland, wants the state to ensure older people and those in minority groups get the vaccine.

“Those over 50 and people of color have suffered the most deaths during the pandemic and therefore should be prioritized for the vaccine, particularly those over 65, who represent 75% of those who have died from COVID-19,” said Hank Greenberg, the group’s state director.

“There should be vaccines set aside for older and underserved populations with a designated phone number for appointments to get the vaccine, and specific days reserved at designated sites throughout the state for older Marylanders to get the vaccine,” he said. “We would also like to see a comprehensive strategy for reaching homebound seniors.”

The Hogan administration has faced some criticism for lacking equity in distribution, offering more vaccine to rural areas and vaccinating fewer people in minority groups than white people.

But Hogan says there should be enough vaccine to go around so that everyone who wants to be vaccinated will be able to do so in the next few months. That does depend, however, on the federal government continuing to provide enough doses, Hogan said.

“If they continue to provide vaccines the way they’ve led us to believe, we should be able to finish everybody who wants one during April and May,” he said.

Some providers, such as hospitals, say they are ready.

“The early arrival of vaccination eligibility for everyone aged 16 and up — previously set for April 27 — will be welcomed by all,” said Bob Atlas, president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association. “Hospitals that are running vaccination clinics simply need to adjust their appointment scheduling systems to process the change effective April 12.”

He said hospitals are currently receiving about 10% doses distributed in Maryland while also serving as clinical partners for most of the state-run mass vaccination sites. The state runs the appointment system for the mass sites.

Some people worry the state will experience a mismatch between available doses and the number of people who want them, as happened in January when eligibility was expanded to more than 2 million Marylanders in lower priority groups.

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“When you have a walk-up site, isn’t everybody going to drive from all over the state, going to walk up and get in a big line?” state Sen. James Rosapepe, a Prince George’s County Democrat, asked Monday afternoon during a meeting on vaccinations with the state health secretary.

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Secretary Dennis Schrader said the state is evaluating how the walk-up process works, starting in the less-populous Eastern Shore and Western Maryland before moving to sites in more populated areas.

“That’s why we’re going slow,” Schrader said during the online meeting with senators. “Wicomico had the capacity, so we offered it for about 500 people that showed up” on Friday, the first day a walk-up lane was available.

He added the state wants to target younger populations, which health officials say are driving an increase in the infection rate in recent weeks.

“We want to make sure we use all of the capacity we’ve built at these mass vax sites,” he said. “With the younger population now being the target of the problem, we really want to get them vaccinated as fast as possible.”

Even with eligibility thrown wide-open to all adults and older teenagers, Hogan said high-risk people will still have priority. But he noted about three-quarters of Maryland’s senior population, which made up most of the severe cases and deaths early in the pandemic, have received at least one shot.

Now, cases mainly are among younger people. State data shows about 43% of those age 50 to 64 have gotten at least one shot and about 28% of those age 18 to 49 have gotten one.

Those groups are making up a larger share of new cases, which are increasingly dominated by a coronavirus strain that was first reported in the United Kingdom and is far more contagious.

There currently are more than 650 cases involving variants in Maryland, most related to a strain first identified in the United Kingdom, according to the CDC.

There were 859 total cases reported Monday in Maryland, bringing the total to more than 418,000 cases, according to the Maryland Department of Health. There were 12 more deaths reported, bringing the total deaths during the pandemic to 8,177 in Maryland. There are 1,165 people hospitalized.

Hogan has lifted many restrictions on businesses. He has not said if there are conditions in which he would reinstate any restrictions. The state’s mask mandate remains in effect.

Baltimore Sun reporter Phil Davis contributed to this article.

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