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Hospitals prepare for worker vaccines as Maryland reports second-highest number of new coronavirus cases

Lisa Polinsky, assistant vice president of pharmacy services for LifeBridge Health, poses Nov. 11, 2020, for a photo in front of the refrigerators, left, and the freezer, right, they normally use for vaccines at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. The hospital bought even colder freezers to store COVID-19 vaccines.
Lisa Polinsky, assistant vice president of pharmacy services for LifeBridge Health, poses Nov. 11, 2020, for a photo in front of the refrigerators, left, and the freezer, right, they normally use for vaccines at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. The hospital bought even colder freezers to store COVID-19 vaccines. (Ulysses Muñoz)

Hospitals in Maryland are preparing to receive doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine this week, then begin giving it immediately to frontline workers.

Maryland is expecting 50,700 doses from Pfizer as early as Monday, then about a week later another 104,300 doses of a Moderna vaccine. The Food and Drug Administration authorized Friday emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine. The first doses will be reserved for hospital workers and nursing home residents and employees, state health officials announced earlier.

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The highly anticipated vaccine is being rolled out as the infection rate and death toll from the pandemic has surged. The Maryland Department of Health reported 3,538 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus Saturday, the second-highest number of daily cases since the start of the pandemic, after reaching a record high of 3,792 new daily cases Dec. 4.

Health officials said Saturday that 36 more people died of COVID-19, the disease the virus causes. Maryland’s death toll has soared in November and December, jumping from 195 deaths recorded in October to 937 since Nov. 1.

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LifeBridge Health hopes to receive its first vaccine shipments by Tuesday and set up clinics for heath care workers by Wednesday at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, Northwest Hospital in Randallstown, Carroll Hospital in Westminster and Grace Medical Center in Baltimore.

Sinai’s clinic will be in the atrium, visible to anyone passing through, as a way to help alleviate fears about the vaccine, said Lisa Polinsky, LifeBridge’s assistant vice president of pharmacy services.

“This is the hope piece of this whole pandemic,” Polinsky said. “This is where we look to try to get on the other side of it.”

Polinsky and other hospital officials stressed, however, that it’s crucial to keep following safety protocols, such as mask wearing and distancing, for the coming months.

LifeBridge’s hospitals are among 24 that are slated to receive the first batch of the shipments to Maryland. Others include University of Maryland Medical System’s hospitals in Baltimore, Glen Burnie, Prince George’s County and Towson; The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Hopkins Bayview in Baltimore and Johns Hopkins/Howard County General Hospital, four MedStar hospitals and others.

None of the hospitals set to receive the first batch as soon as next week are in Allegany and Garrett counties in Western Maryland, which have some of the state’s highest rates of COVID-19. Officials in those counties Friday questioned why those areas are not a priority.

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

Bob Atlas, president of the Maryland Hospital Association said in a statement Saturday that the initial shipment, which is limited nationwide, cannot cover all health care workers at hospitals.

“Fortunately, sufficient doses are expected to follow within a few weeks, if not days,” Atlas said. “All of Maryland hospitals hope this marks the beginning of the end of the pandemic.”

As of Saturday, 1,719 people were hospitalized in Maryland with virus-related complications, 10 fewer than Friday, when the state set a pandemic record for the third consecutive day. Hospitalizations have more than tripled since the beginning of November.

LifeBridge began signing up workers Friday who volunteered to get vaccinated, and plans to ramp up to vaccinate as many as 20 people an hour. The vaccine will be given by the hospital’s occupational health team.

“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.”

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

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

The initial 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 initial batch of vaccines administered through the state health department will cover the first of two shots for about 155,000 people — just a fraction of the amount needed to eventually inoculate 6 million Marylanders. The second shot is required weeks later to achieve full efficacy, which is more than 94% for both the Pfizer and Moderna products.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said Tuesday 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.

In a separate effort, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said Thursday its COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan will start with frontline health care workers and patients at 37 of its U.S. medical centers, including the Baltimore VA Medical Center.

“Our frontline 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.”

Saturday’s COVID-19 case statistics bring the state to at least 232,009 infections and 4,937 virus-related deaths during the pandemic. The state’s positivity rate edged down slightly to 7.42% Saturday.

Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Barker, Ben Leonard and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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