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Maryland hospitals prepare to distribute first batch of Pfizer vaccines to front-line workers

Hospitals in Maryland are preparing to receive doses of the coronavirus vaccine — perhaps as early as Monday — to begin administering to front-line medical workers this week as part of an initial shipment from Pfizer.

The first doses delivered to the state will be reserved for hospital workers and nursing home residents and employees, state health officials announced last week. Maryland is expecting 50,700 doses from Pfizer, then about a week later another 104,300 doses of a Moderna vaccine.

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Those initial shipments will deliver only enough vaccine to give the first of two needed doses to about 155,000 people, which is insufficient to inoculate the highest priority groups, never mind the state’s 6 million residents.

“Fortunately, sufficient doses [for front-line hospital workers] are expected to follow within a few weeks if not days,” said Bob Atlas, president of the Maryland Hospital Association, in a statement. “All of Maryland hospitals hope this marks the beginning of the end of the pandemic.”

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The state expects to receive 300,000 doses by the end of the month, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said last week.

Still it may be months before the general public can get the vaccine, as the state works through its priority list, starting with health care workers and nursing home residents, followed by those at highest risk of complications and death, essential workers, people at moderate risk of severe illness and, finally, those without risk factors.

The highly anticipated vaccines are being rolled out as the infection rate and death toll from the pandemic has surged in Maryland and elsewhere. Maryland’s death toll has soared in November and December, jumping from 195 deaths recorded in October to 978 since Nov. 1. The state has reported more than 2,000 cases in 17 of the past 20 days.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the first COVID-19 vaccine Friday evening when it okayed Pfizer’s. FDA approval of Moderna’s vaccine is pending but expected this week.

With vaccine production expected to ramp up in the coming weeks and months, the state is laying the groundwork for eventual mass distribution. The Maryland Department of Health issued an order last week that allows any licensed health care provider with proper training — including doctors, nurses, pharmacists and paramedics — to administer the vaccine.

The first two dozen hospitals to receive the vaccine are ready to start vaccinating their workers as soon as they get the doses, Atlas said. Those most likely to come into contact with coronavirus patients will get the shots first, he said.

“All the state’s hospitals have been preparing to receive, store and administer the vaccine,” he said.

Both LifeBridge Health and the University of Maryland Medical System expect to receive their first vaccine shipments Tuesday.

Lifebridge Health hopes to have vaccine clinics set up by Wednesday for its health care workers at its facilities, Sinai Hospital and Grace Medical Center in Baltimore, Northwest Hospital in Randallstown and Carroll Hospital in Westminster.

At Sinai, the clinic will be set up in the hospital atrium, where it will be visible to anyone passing through with the aim of helping to alleviate fears about the vaccine, said Lisa Polinsky, assistant vice president of pharmacy services for Lifebridge. Lifebridge began signing up workers Friday to get vaccinated, which is voluntary.

“The hope is that we’d be able to vaccinate all of our health care workers by the end of January,” Polinsky said. “That’s the goal — hopefully, sooner.”

Gary Tuggle, deputy incident commander for UMMS’ COVID response, said the vaccine is expected to go to the system’s hospitals in Baltimore, Glen Burnie, Largo and Towson by Tuesday or Wednesday and then be distributed to its nine other hospitals.

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“We’ve been planning for this for some time,” including the early phases to vaccinate the workforce and later phases for the community at large, Tuggle said. “We’re eager to get the process rolling.”

The Lifebridge and Maryland hospitals are among 24 statewide that are slated to receive some of the first batch of doses shipped. Others include The Johns Hopkins Hospital as well as Hopkins Bayview and Howard County General hospitals; the MedStar hospitals in Baltimore and Rosedale; Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis and Saint Agnes Hospital in Baltimore.

None of the hospitals set to receive some of the first batch this week are in Western Maryland’s Allegany and Garrett counties, which have some of the state’s highest rates of COVID-19. Officials in those counties raised questions Friday about why those areas are not top priority.

The state health department has told local leaders they will prioritize Allegany for a second shipment of another vaccine, from Moderna, which is expected a week later.

Johns Hopkins Medicine said it expects to receive a vaccine supply in the coming days. Because supplies initially will be limited, Hopkins Medicine relied on U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidance to set priorities for its health care employees, said Kim Hoppe, a Hopkins spokeswoman.

The first shots will be available through a random selection process to clinical and nonclinical staff who care for patients, both with and without COVID-19, she said. The vaccine will not be mandatory for employees.

While a vaccine is now available — although in a limited supply — it is unclear if it prevents vaccinated individuals from carrying the virus and passing it along to others,” Hoppe said. “It is essential that everyone continue to practice proven public health measures to prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said its COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan will start with front-line health care workers and patients at 37 of its U.S. medical centers, including the Baltimore VA Medical Center.

“Our front-line providers and our most vulnerable veterans in our long-term care facilities will be among the first groups to be vaccinated,” the Baltimore center said in a statement. “We are prepared and positioned to begin offering vaccinations as soon as it is approved and arrives.”

Hogan said last week that the state has signed up Maryland’s 227 nursing homes and 1,668 assisted-living facilities for a federal partnership through CVS and Walgreens that will vaccinate residents and staff.

Those facilities, charged with overseeing some of Maryland’s most vulnerable residents, will face a series of challenges as they decide who in their care to vaccinate first, and where, said Joseph DeMattos, president and CEO of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland.

“The massiveness of the vaccine undertaking, the limited supply of the vaccine, and the conditions on the ground in nursing homes in Maryland and around the country, make it unlikely that we will see the full impact of the vaccine until March of 2021,” DeMattos said. “Yet again with COVID-19, we’re attempting to do something that’s never been done before. So, there are going to be bumps in the road.”

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Eventually, the vaccine will be available to the general public at pharmacies and doctor’s offices, said Bryan Mroz, a nurse who is the chief medical officer and assistant secretary for the state health department.

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“That’s where we want it to be in the end. But we have to go through those steps,” he said. “And as vaccines become more and more available, it spreads out faster and faster.”

There remains skepticism about vaccines, and health officials are concerned about how many people might choose to not get vaccinated.

A national Gallup Poll conducted in late October and early November — before news about the successful trials of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — found 58% of respondents were likely to get the vaccine.

The state is planning to roll out a marketing campaign to educate the public about vaccines in hopes of improving “vaccine confidence.” They plan to use “trusted community voices” to communicate what’s known about the vaccines, including possible side effects.

Most people did not have side effects in vaccine trials, but some had mild fever, headaches or pain at the injection site, said Dr. Jinlene Chan, the state’s chief public health officer. Additional studies will provide more clarity on the safety of the vaccines in children and whether people would need to be vaccinated annually, as they do for the flu.

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