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Coronavirus in Maryland: 5 takeaways from the week

An advisory committee recommended Thursday that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approve Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, clearing the way for mass distribution to begin to millions of Americans before the end of the year.

Pfizer’s vaccine — along with Moderna’s, which is also seeking approval from the FDA — uses so-called messenger RNA, which works by conveying genetic instructions to a person’s cells to make specific proteins that can induce production of antibodies that defend against the virus. That differs from traditional vaccines that inject “dead” virus into the body to induce antibody production.

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Even if the shipment of vaccines begins immediately, it will take several months before enough of the population gets vaccinated to abate the coronavirus. Already, the question of how best to encourage mass vaccination has come to the forefront, with top Maryland officials saying this week that it will not be mandatory, but “strongly encouraged.”

Americans remain divided about getting vaccinated. A Pew Research Center study found the country split about 60-40, with more people in favor of getting vaccinated, but with about 18% saying they would “definitely” not get it.

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To catch Marylanders up on the stories they may have missed, here are five key points from The Baltimore Sun’s coronavirus coverage this week.

State preps for vaccine distribution and challenges

Getting hundreds of thousands, or millions, of Marylanders vaccinated will be one of the toughest logistical hurdles state officials will likely ever face.

The effort will not only entail mass coordination, organization and meticulous execution, but also require the state to invest in special, expensive freezers to keep the vials cold (both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines require cold storage). The state will also have to keep a record of every person who gets vaccinated, as well as the number of doses they have received (both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines require two doses, three or four weeks apart).

Maryland is expected to get an initial batch of 155,000 vaccines, which covers only about half of its essential health care workforce. The state also looked to vaccinate its most vulnerable residents right away, including older adults and those living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

“There’s going to be a lot of questions that need to be answered,” said Kevin D. Heffner, president and CEO of LifeSpan Network, which represents nearly 300 senior care providers in the region. “We haven’t heard from the local health departments what the protocol is going to be — residents first? Staff? Then you have the issue of consent. For the flu vaccine, you can have a verbal consent, but I’m assuming that won’t be the case with COVID.”

Meanwhile, employers, particularly those in health care fields, will have to start weighing how to handle internal vaccination policies as they consider reopening their office spaces.

MedStar Health president and CEO Kenneth A. Samet said the hospital requires its staff to get the flu vaccine, but will not require them to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We are going to share openly the science, we’re using all the national communication,” Samet said during a Greater Baltimore Committee virtual event Tuesday. “We’ll encourage them to take this vaccine, but we’re not going to mandate it initially. Our physician leaders, when their time comes — they will be the first in line.”

Vaccine equity depends on trusted voices, ‘community messengers’

Not all potential vaccine recipients will respond to information and messaging campaigns equally, Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said this week.

City health officials conducted focus groups of potential flu-shot recipients earlier this year, and found that representation and visibility within ad campaigns increased the level of interest among subjects, especially within the Black community.

“Individuals wanted media campaigns where individuals looked like them,” she said. “When I think about the African American community in particular, and what we know about medical mistrust and vaccine hesitancy, it’ll be important to focus and target our messaging to dismantle those concerns outright. We’ll have to address the root causes.”

She said trusted “community messengers” such as faith leaders, nonprofits and neighborhood activists will have a critical role to play in enlisting their community to get vaccinated.

Dr. Mohan Suntha, president and CEO of the University of Maryland Medical System, said during the GBC’s virtual event that Maryland’s medical community will focus on vaccinating a diverse range of residents, including those disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

“We should consider it a failure if those with the greatest risk are the least vaccinated,” said Suntha, adding that the business sector will also have to join the messaging campaign.

New dining restrictions in some jurisdictions

Some jurisdictions — Baltimore City as well as Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — suspended indoor dining effective this week in response to rising COVID-19 cases as well as hospitalizations and deaths. Baltimore and Anne Arundel are pausing outdoor, in-person restaurant dining as well.

Public health experts widely agree that indoor dining, as well as socializing, remains among the riskiest activities. The virus spreads easiest indoors, with fluid droplets and other particles coming from the nose and mouth thought to be the most likely carriers of the coronavirus.

Though delivery, pickup and curbside food service remain active, some restaurant owners and staff were quick to criticize the enforcement, saying indoor dining represents a crucial part of their business.

“This is the right thing to do because this is about saving lives,” said Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, who announced the new guidelines on his first full day in office. “We know how tough it is.”

Food service workers said consumers can help keep them afloat by ordering carryout (and delivery, outside of third-party carriers) and buying gift cards to use at a later date.

Hogan promises more business relief

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan did not announce further statewide restrictions at a news conference Thursday.

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Rather, he unveiled a financial assistance package, which includes unemployment tax relief for small businesses. And under an executive order, an employer’s 2021 tax rate will be based on their “nonpandemic experience” by excluding the 2020 fiscal year. Instead, the rate will be determined by using fiscal years 2017, 2018 and 2019.

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The focus on business relief rather than enforcement highlights the ideological differences between the Republican governor and his Democratic counterparts in local jurisdictions.

“As from the beginning, county leaders are able to make their own decisions about being more restrictive, and they have,” Hogan said at a State House news conference Thursday after Maryland reported its second-highest daily total ever for new cases.

Some officials, especially in the more concentrated regions in the state, said a uniform approach to mitigation would prevent people from putting themselves at risk.

Dzirasa, Baltimore’s health commissioner, said it’s been “challenging” for localities to make choices to tighten restrictions without the backing of statewide rules from Hogan.

“We have 11 hospitals, more than any other jurisdiction in the state,” Dzirasa said. “We’re going to bear the brunt when we look at hospitalizations here for Baltimore City. And so, given that, it would be great to have a statewide approach.”

Hogan said the state will continue “to take every single action that we believe is appropriate based on the data and the metrics.”

An inauguration in a pandemic

Spaced out in shifts, wearing masks and taking the oath of office outdoors, members of Baltimore’s 73rd City Council were sworn in amid characteristically 2020 conditions.

The new council will face crippling homicide statistics, overwhelming economic strain and massive numbers of those seeking unemployment insurance and other business relief. But first, it will have to get the city through the coronavirus pandemic, which will cloud every initial action.

Organizers kept attendance to a minimum Thursday, in compliance with recommendations from the city Health Department to help control the spread of COVID-19. Outgoing council members did not attend, nor did the group come together as a unit.

“I would have loved to be with all my colleagues,” said Odette Ramos, District 14′s new councilwoman and the city’s first elected Hispanic representative. “We have to take all precautions.”

Scott, who left his seat as City Council president to run for mayor, was sworn in Tuesday during a small, socially distanced ceremony. Only his parents and a few other key officials were on hand. The public and most media were barred due to crowd restrictions during the pandemic.

Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood, Jeff Barker, Christina Tkacik, Christine Condon, Emily Opilo and Ben Leonard contributed to this article.

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