After treating more than 45,500 COVID patients during the pandemic, most of them unvaccinated, Maryland’s hospital staffs are “tired” but fear more cases are on the way.
Officials from 60 hospitals and health systems in and around the state penned an open letter urging Marylanders to help by getting vaccinated.
Hospital workers have fought for “more than 500 straight days to protect all of us from the coronavirus,” the letter says. But it’s time “for Marylanders to step up, to protect your children, yourselves, and your friends and neighbors. Roll up your sleeves and get vaccinated against COVID-19.”
The majority of Marylanders already have, leading to one of the nation’s highest vaccination rates, which Gov. Larry Hogan has touted repeatedly. He said Monday the state had reached another milestone, with more than 95% of seniors having at least one dose of vaccine. More than 8 in 10 of those age 12 and older have have gotten a dose as well.
“Getting first shots in arms — especially among our most vulnerable populations — continues to be our primary mission,” Hogan said in a statement. “The vaccines are very safe, very effective, and they are widely available through pharmacies, primary care providers and mobile clinics across the state.”
Delta variant fuels recent coronavirus wave
Still, the state already is in the midst of another coronavirus wave fueled by the more contagious delta variant and experiencing staffing shortages at some hospitals.
Bob Atlas, president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association, said conditions could get worse if the virus continues to infect unvaccinated people, including students returning to in-person school and workers returning to their offices. This comes as hospitals cope with other respiratory viruses circulating and the impending flu season.
“The state could begin to see a patient surge,” Atlas said. “We do not want to be in the position many other states are in, with steep increases in patients and limited resources to care for them. Hospitals want to be clear that vaccination makes a difference.”
Idaho and Florida are among the states reporting particularly stressed hospitals filled with unvaccinated patients suffering from COVID-19. Those vaccinated still can get infected and become sick but are far less likely to require hospitalization.
In Maryland, there were 817 people hospitalized with COVID-19 Monday, up from a low in early July when there were fewer than 100 such patients in hospital beds, but down from the pandemic peak in January of 1,952.
In the letter to Marylanders, hospital officials said almost all people being hospitalized for COVID are unvaccinated, despite the widespread availability of vaccines. About 5.3% of all COVID cases in Maryland since January and 4.6% of COVID-related deaths have been among fully vaccinated people, according to data provided by the hospitals.
“And we’re sadly seeing a rise in COVID cases among those not yet eligible for vaccination — children under 12,” the letter says.
In June, the state’s largest hospitals and health systems said they would require all their own workers to get vaccinated. And Hogan has since ordered all workers in hospitals and nursing homes to be vaccinated.
Atlas said Monday that the average vaccination rate for hospital employees in Maryland varied by facility but it’s above 80%, the same as the state as a whole. Some, he said, had rates exceeding 95%.
Every major health system in Maryland has signed the letter
More than four dozen executives signed the letter, including those from every major health system in the state: Johns Hopkins Medicine, University of Maryland Medical System, LifeBridge Health and MedStar Health. The list also included some rehabilitation and psychiatric hospitals and a small number from surrounding jurisdictions that treat Maryland patients.
Throughout the pandemic, access to vaccines has been an issue, with states such as Maryland working to overcome barriers, particularly for minority groups. But public health experts say misinformation about vaccine safety has been particularly harmful.
To understand Maryland’s unvaccinated, state health officials dug into their electronic records system to find those who had not been inoculated against COVID-19 and tapped DMI and EurekaFacts to conduct a survey of three groups: younger 18-to-30-year-olds, seniors age 65 and older and Hispanic people.
Officials interviewed 1,868 people who had not been vaccinated between June 23 and July 7, and the results were provided to The Baltimore Sun.
About 40% of the young adult respondents said they would “definitely not” get vaccinated, along with more than the 35% of seniors and 25% of Hispanic people.
As top reasons for going unvaccinated, all three groups cited “perceived long-term side effects” from vaccines that could be worse than the long-term effects from COVID-19.
One hurdle for vaccinations? Dispelling misinformation.
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All three groups cited the speed of vaccine development for eschewing vaccines. Seniors also cited existing health conditions as a concern and younger people said fertility issues were a concern for them. Medical experts have sought to dispel misinformation about all of these topics.
Officials said messaging from health care professionals about what are normally mild and short-term side effects from the vaccines could help convince some people to get a shot. As could messaging about potential long-term effects of COVID-19 such as chronic fatigue, brain fog and loss of smell or taste or hair.
Specifically for the Hispanic population, tapping family, friends and elders could help with messaging. And employers could provide paid time off for vaccinations and other incentives, the officials said, though all three groups said protecting family and friends and themselves were top reasons to get a shot.
Officials said reaching the seniors still unvaccinated likely would have to be done by contacting people directly through mailers, calls and advertising.
The survey showed all three groups viewed doctors as the most trusted source of COVID-19 information, and unvaccinated people prefer to be vaccinated in their doctor’s office. The officials said doctors should be encouraged to communicate directly with patients and participate in advertising.
The survey did not ask about political affiliation, though national surveys, including one from the Kaiser Family Foundation in July, show that those most resistant to vaccination are younger men more likely to identify as Republican.
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.