As it did for many Maryland seniors, Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement last week offered hope for Stephen Poe. It meant the 80-year-old who lives near Edgewater would be eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine in a few days.
So Poe visited the Anne Arundel County Department of Health’s website and filled out a preregistration form. He got an automated confirmation email saying his information had been received, and then tried signing up through his hospital and two other counties.
Still, he has no idea when, or where, he’ll get his shots.
Poe was one of half a dozen seniors in the Baltimore area who told The Baltimore Sun they experienced a similar emotional whiplash — promise followed by frustration. Many eligible to receive the vaccine feel that they’ve been left in the dark because of a lack of communication and clear direction from health officials.
“What’s frustrating is that I think of Maryland as a state that kind of has its s--- together on a lot of things,” Poe said. “Both providing information and getting the vaccine out of the freezer and into people’s arms, if West Virginia can do that, why can’t Maryland do that? ... It seems to be a big void between saying, ‘OK we’re going to open this process to people 75 and older’ and then there’s this big silence.”
Maryland officials, meanwhile, say they’re doing the best they can with the resources they have, acknowledging that demand for the shots exceeds the supply of doses streaming in. Maryland is getting about 10,000 doses a day from the federal government but now has about 1.5 million Marylanders eligible to get the vaccine. And more people will become eligible Monday when vaccinations open for those 65 to 74 years old and some essential workers.
About 251,000 people had received their first dose of the vaccine as of Wednesday morning, a little more than a third of the more than 702,000 doses the state has distributed, health department data shows. Some are being saved for the much-needed second shot that all recipients of the vaccine currently need for best immunity.
Public health professionals consider the available vaccines — exceeding expectation in their effectiveness and timeliness — the best available tools to get daily life back to a version of normalcy. They debuted in mid-December, as the nation endured a deadly new surge of COVID-19 daily cases, deaths and hospitalizations. The disease caused by the virus has killed more than 400,000 Americans, including about 100,000 from mid-December to January.
But as mass vaccination kicked off, a shortage of doses, supplies, vaccinators and planning ability stymied progress. A new, more contagious COVID-19 variant, expected to become widespread in the U.S. by March, increased the pressure on state and federal officials to quicken the inoculation rate.
State Sen. Clarence Lam, the lone physician in the Maryland Senate, said there’s a lack of leadership from the state with respect to the vaccine rollout. He said Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration has adopted a decentralized approach to administering the vaccine akin to that of former President Donald Trump: Set expectations high, and delegate coordination to local governments.
While seniors and educators should get inoculated as soon as possible, the state has not thought through the eligibility expansion, Lam said. Local governments, strapped for cash and inundated with tasks, are fighting for the same resources, securing larger spaces for clinics on their own to manage crowds and facing overwhelming call volumes.
“It’s really unfair what the state did, setting up these very high expectations, yet the state gave the local health departments no guidance as to how to address this,” said Lam, a Democrat who represents parts of Baltimore and Howard counties. “Things need to be centralized rather than decentralized and shoved down to lower levels of government.”
Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, a Republican, said that Walmart and Giant will come online as vaccine administrators next week, followed by more pharmacies that also have their own appointment systems. Then, as supply increases, the state will launch centralized mass sites and open appointments for those.
“We want to make this as direct a process as possible,” Ricci said in an email.
But the process so far has excluded some of the most vulnerable Marylanders from accessing appointments.
The Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway, senior pastor of Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore, said many area residents could not get appointments immediately after they became eligible, including seniors who live without computers or don’t have the skills to access them. West Baltimore’s leaders are now engaged, he said, but it highlights an inequity that is surely plaguing other neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, as those in the medical community acknowledge long days ahead, several said the outpouring of demand from young and old to get vaccinated signals an end in sight to the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr. Lisa Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention for the Johns Hopkins Health System, said “substantial” logistical hurdles will prevent getting shots into the arms of everybody who wants them for a time. But she said the enthusiasm has given her a welcome “ray of hope.”
The Hopkins Health System is working with Baltimore and other partners to deliver doses to a number of sites so that they’re accessible, Maragakis said Tuesday at a virtual event hosted by the Greater Baltimore Committee. The health system also is opening a call center and dispatching community outreach partners to help patients who don’t have computers or internet access sign up for the vaccine.
“We were all so worried about hesitancy, and there’s a lot of finger-pointing going on right now,” Maragakis said. “Supplies are the constraint, and I want to dispel the notion that it’s people sitting on stockpiles. Across the board, there’s been heroic efforts taking place.”
The vaccine rollout is hampered by a “critical supply constraint” that could ease soon, Dr. Kathleen Neuzil, director of the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said Tuesday. If more vaccine candidates get emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by mid-February, she expects all adults will have gotten at least one shot by June or July.
And Tiffany Tate, executive director of the Maryland Partnership for Prevention, a nonprofit that works with state and local health departments to manage vaccination clinics, sees promise in the preregistration forms created by local health departments. She said they’re a way to ensure everyone who wants a vaccine gets one.
Tate thinks Maryland should leverage those lists to move more quickly through the population and said it should consider using her organization’s methodology to operate as many as 10 strategically placed, 24-hour clinics to keep the momentum going once the stress on supply chains abates.
“It’s not even futuristic or sci-fi, it’s just giving people shots,” Tate said. “Groups like ours should be at the table, making the decisions, because they know how to attract people to these clinics. And they need to encourage any provider out there to join us.”
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Some local health departments have been inundated with tens of thousands of preregistrations, which possibly explains why some eligible people haven’t heard back yet.
Carol Baish, of Baltimore, feels as if she’s tried almost every link around to sign her and her husband up for a vaccine. The 82-year-old is less worried for her own sake and more concerned for his; he’s 80 and has diabetes and heart disease.
Baish keeps up with the news and understands everyone is scrambling to rise to the challenge of an unprecedented pandemic, she said. She’s trying to be patient, but sometimes frustrations boil over.
One webpage suggested she make a vaccination appointment on the Eastern Shore; Baish said they don’t drive on the highway anymore. The Baltimore City Health Department’s website just says they’re booked for vaccinations through the end of the month, so she queried the website about putting her name on a list.
“‘I typed in the line ‘How do I sign up for a waiting list for COVID vaccination?’ Here’s the response: ‘Did you mean, how do I site up on a writing last for COVID vaccination?’ Then I was advised to check my spelling,” Baish said.
Hours after speaking to a reporter, Baish called back: The University of Maryland Medical System said she was on its list.
Now Baish just has to wait for another email.
A previous version of this story misstated how many physicians there are in the Maryland legislature.