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Baltimore Convention Center mass COVID vaccine site to prioritize vulnerable city residents amid criticism of inequity

Amid criticism of inequitable access to Maryland’s limited supply of COVID-19 vaccines, the state’s mass vaccination clinic at the Baltimore Convention Center will prioritize people from underserved areas of the city, officials announced Monday.

Officials announced they will “seek to fill as many appointments as possible” with people from some of Baltimore’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods to improve a striking racial disparity in vaccinations and the city’s ranking as third from last in the state in the number of residents vaccinated.

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But the University of Maryland Medical System and Gov. Larry Hogan, who outraged Baltimore leaders last week by saying the city had received more vaccine than it was “entitled to,” stopped short of promising to reserve a certain number of appointments for city residents. Hogan, a Republican, made the remarks as he toured the city’s second mass vaccination site, at M&T Bank Stadium, which has already expanded appointment availability and eventually could offer 10,000 doses per day, once supply is available.

Over the next several weeks, the convention center site will prioritize appointments for those in six Baltimore City ZIP codes with high rates of poverty, unemployment and COVID-19 cases; undertake “aggressive community engagement” and refine “technology tools” to reach at-risk people; and “increase public efforts” to encourage people to get vaccinated, officials said.

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The targeted ZIP codes are 21215, 21216, 21217, 21213, 21218 and 21205.

“This pilot is a demonstration of the commitment to get the equity equation right — the state, our local partners, and the community finding the answer together,” said Maryland National Guard Brigadier Gen. Janeen Birckhead, head of the state’s equity task force, in the announcement. “It’s one more step in the right direction to ensure equitable distribution of the vaccine. We must do all we can to make the vaccine available in our most vulnerable communities.”

About 43% of those who have been vaccinated at the convention center, which serves anyone eligible in the state, have been Baltimore residents, said Michael Schwartzberg, a spokesman for the university medical system. He declined to say whether a portion of the site’s future doses would be set aside for city residents — or by when.

“At this time, our goal is to fill as many appointments as possible,” Schwartzberg said in an email. “Once we establish a baseline over the next few weeks, we’ll be better positioned to set medium and long term targets. ... As schedules open, individuals in these communities that are/have registered for vaccination will receive first priority.”

The announcement came after The Baltimore Sun reported that white Marylanders have received more than four times as many doses of coronavirus vaccine as Black residents, a gap that has not closed as more doses have arrived in the state and more people have become eligible for them.

Most doses administered in Baltimore City have gone to people living in other jurisdictions, according to Maryland Department of Health data provided by Mayor Brandon Scott’s office.

Only 38.5% of the 114,712 first dose vaccinations given in the city between Dec. 15, 2020, and Feb. 25, 2021, went to Baltimore City residents, the data shows.

In that time period, 31.6% of the city’s first dose vaccinations went to Baltimore County residents, many of whom work in the city. The remaining 34,280 first dose vaccinations went to residents of Howard, Anne Arundel, Harford and Montgomery counties, in addition to out-of-state residents.

The geographic spread of the city’s doses likely reflects that many of the health care workers and first responders prioritized first for vaccination don’t live in the city.

Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa welcomed the decision to prioritize vulnerable city residents. She called UMMS “an excellent clinical partner throughout the pandemic” and said the city health department will assist with outreach to vulnerable people.

”This initiative to focus such a limited resource on those in greatest need provides another example of their commitment to the residents of Baltimore City,” Dzirasa said in a statement. “We are very supportive of this initiative and we have been working with UMMS as they review City-level data to understand areas with the lowest vaccination rates.”

State Del. Robbyn Lewis, a Baltimore Democrat, said she is “so happy to hear that the state health department is responding to the need for more equitable vaccine distribution.” But she found the timing curious given Hogan’s recent comment.

”It hasn’t even been a week, and the bruises from that comment haven’t faded, much less healed,” Lewis said. “I hope we’re past that. I hope the demonstration of a commitment to an equitable vaccine rollout shows that we’ve moved past that kind of vindictive, resentful commentary and moved into a more unified approach to solving a problem that affects every single person in this state.”

Dr. Mohan Suntha, president and CEO of UMMS, said the opening of the nearby M&T Bank Stadium site, which the health system is operating for the state along with the one at the convention center, provided “the perfect opportunity to redouble [equity] efforts and engage with local communities.”

“This approach will build on the success we have already seen” at the convention center, Suntha said in a statement. “Since we began operations, we have been looking for methods to more effectively serve all communities in Baltimore.”

UMMS and Johns Hopkins Medicine will hire additional staff to go into neighborhoods and “work with community leaders and individual residents to overcome the principal obstacles that have contributed to low vaccine uptake in these areas: the digital divide, access to transportation and dispelling vaccine misinformation and myths,” officials said in the release.

Outreach teams will help residents get to and from appointments with Lyft rides “and other community based transportation assets,” according to UMMS. They will help make appointments online or over the phone for “individuals who have been excluded from vaccination due to lack of internet access.” A Lyft spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

The Rev. Donte Hickman, pastor of the Southern Baptist Church, in one of the targeted ZIP codes in East Baltimore, said prioritizing people in at-risk areas is “excellent, given the comorbidities in our communities.”

But he said the state should open clinics at “household name churches,” in addition to bringing people to mass vaccination sites, to get vaccines into impoverished, isolated city neighborhoods. He said he and other pastors have reached out to the governor’s office and Johns Hopkins to offer help.

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“It seems to work when elected officials need to get to the community for votes,” he said. “Whenever elected officials want to reach masses of African Americans, they come to the churches. What is the difference now, in giving people access through the places they trust?”

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People in vulnerable communities who lack digital access and need help registering for a vaccine appointment at the Baltimore Convention Center can call 443-462-5511 from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday to do so. People with digital access can register online at www.umms.org/BCCvaccine.

Baltimore Sun reporter Sanya Kamidi contributed to this article.

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