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With crowds gone, Maryland’s mass COVID vaccination sites reach the end of the line

There were nurses, needles and all the other staff and equipment necessary to vaccinate thousands of people against COVID-19. At M&T Bank Stadium, one of the biggest of the state’s mass vaccination sites, the only things in short supply were arms.

The drop in demand for shots has led Maryland officials to close this and another dozen or so mass vaccination sites. Friday is the end of the line for M&T.

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The state is shifting its strategy to distribute vaccines through smaller, targeted clinics that move from churches and apartment buildings to community centers and business locations. They also will rely on a network of close to 1,500 pharmacies and doctors’ offices.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Dr. Jason Marx, incident commander at the M&T site and a physician in the University of Maryland Medical System, which helped run the operation for the state. The site doled out about 250,000 doses by the end of June, the second-highest among such sites, behind only the Six Flags amusement park site in Prince George’s County.

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“The mass sites served their purpose,” he said. “Everyone is really proud of the work done here. It’s why we went into health care, to help people. … But we’d still like to get as many people vaccinated as possible.”

Boanerges Teka, 13 of Baltimore, gets a Pfizer vaccine Thursday at M&T Bank Stadium. The mass vaccination site closes Friday after vaccinating nearly 250,000 people since Feb. 25, 2021.
Boanerges Teka, 13 of Baltimore, gets a Pfizer vaccine Thursday at M&T Bank Stadium. The mass vaccination site closes Friday after vaccinating nearly 250,000 people since Feb. 25, 2021. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Maryland has performed better than many states, with 74.7% of adults with at least one dose of vaccine. That tally doesn’t include teens or adolescents, who became eligible for vaccination more recently, or those younger than 12, who aren’t expected to be eligible until the fall.

Marx noted that the so-called Delta variant, a much more transmissible strain of the virus, is circulating in Maryland and elsewhere. The vaccines appear to prevent severe disease from this and other variants.

But the massive drop in vaccinations at mass sites, from a peak of about 15,000 a day to a couple of thousand, led officials to redirect the resources.

While the sites were always slated to be temporary, the trickle of consumers was unimaginable early in the year when doses were so limited and demand so high that a cottage industry of young and tech-savvy amateur schedulers cropped up to help people find appointments for vaccine.

The stragglers during a stop Thursday at M&T were a mix of newly eligible adolescents, those who had been hesitant until more people were vaccinated and those who had been infected with COVID and wanted to ensure they would be protected from reinfection. All were getting their second shots. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines each require two doses.

Tais Ritter, left, and her husband, Eloi Ritter of Bethesda, check in Thursday at a nearly empty M&T Bank Stadium mass vaccination site. The site will close Friday after vaccinating nearly 250,000 people since Feb. 25, 2021.
Tais Ritter, left, and her husband, Eloi Ritter of Bethesda, check in Thursday at a nearly empty M&T Bank Stadium mass vaccination site. The site will close Friday after vaccinating nearly 250,000 people since Feb. 25, 2021. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

“Now we can go on vacation,” said Beronica Martin, who brought her daughter, Nyeema Young, who turned 12 in June.

Nyeema was not nearly as excited for the vaccine as for her upcoming trip to Candytopia in Philadelphia. In fact, she said media coverage of vaccines had made her not want one at all.

But she was not given an option by her mother, who wanted a more “normal” life back. Also, she said, some family members have underlying health conditions and she did not want a dangerous virus circulating in their Parkville home.

Everyone in the family had come to M&T after Martin brought her mother there months earlier and found the system efficient, despite crowds.

Marx said the site constantly adapted to make the experience smoother. The site contracted with agencies that sent nurses from around the state and country, tipping 400 at one time. Officials retooled the lines and added sign-in equipment and National Guardsman to improve the flow.

Puangtip Itharat, one of the nurses, was prompted to come out of retirement. She worked at Prince George’s Hospital Center for 37 years and wasn’t allowed to continue volunteering there during the pandemic. A search for another volunteer opportunity led her to a job at M&T.

“I’m so proud to be part of it,” she said. “I do whatever I’m assigned to do. … I did 168 injections one day.”

On Thursday, however, there were more nurses than customers. Donald McKeldin, a 63-year-old Edgemere dad, said he finally got a vaccination because his college-age daughter was required to get one.

“I said, ‘I’ll do it if you do it,’” he said. “I waited until the last day because I figured the crowds would be gone and there wouldn’t be a line.”

Enat Tesga, a Baltimore health care worker, was already vaccinated but brought her 13-year-old son, Boanerges Teka, as soon as she could.

“It’s better to get it before he goes back to school in September,” she said.

Jillian Carroll, a 25-year-old Baltimore resident, said she was infected with COVID in March and was “pretty out of it for a week.” She said she hoped others would consider the seriousness of the disease and how vaccination could protect them and let them return more to their normal lives.

“I want to be able to travel,” she said. “I’m ready. It’ll be nice. I also won’t have to wear a mask at work.”

Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s deputy health secretary for public health services, said she’d hoped more people would be vaccinated in the state and country by now.

She credited the mass sites and other local efforts for the relatively high vaccination rate and the low number of new daily infections. There were 75 cases recorded Thursday in Maryland and three deaths. Just over 100 people were hospitalized.

The mass sites administered more than 1.2 million doses by the end of June, out of more than 6.8 million given in total in the state. Many hospitals and nursing homes handed out vaccines early in the pandemic, and Chan said doctors’ offices and pharmacies would likely become a main source of vaccine going forward.

“As we look at the numbers continuing to go down, it’s notable the vaccines had an impact,” she said. “People testing positive and hospitalized recently, the majority are unvaccinated. … We hope everyone comes and gets a vaccine.”

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