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As Maryland officials celebrate opening of FEMA-run COVID vaccine site, Greenbelt mayor and Hogan spar over rollout

Maryland officials celebrated the official opening of federally operated mass coronavirus vaccination site in Greenbelt, touted as being capable of administering thousands of shots daily into the arms of primarily Prince George’s County residents.

Gov. Larry Hogan, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, Greenbelt Mayor Colin Byrd, and representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is running the site at the Greenbelt Metro Station, headlined the news conference Wednesday.

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All speakers agreed the clinic, located at a key public transportation point, was a welcome development.

But Byrd, who plans to run for Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s seat in the 2022 Democratic primary, criticized Hogan’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. He said during the news conference that the Republican governor had prematurely lifted coronavirus restrictions and constructed a vaccination campaign that left people of color behind.

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Byrd said Hogan had scapegoated people of color by saying they were hesitant to get immunizations, whereas the problem was in fact vaccine accessibility. When he was urged to wrap up his remarks — including when someone appeared to try to cut off the microphone, Byrd continued.

“I’ll wrap it up in a second, Mr. Governor,” Byrd said. “You’re in my city, sir.”

Asked by a reporter to respond, Hogan said he “would disagree with every word” of Byrd’s and said the mayor “had nothing to do with our vaccine effort or this site and didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.”

Prince George’s County has been at the forefront of the conversation about racial equity in vaccinations, as the state’s second-most populated jurisdiction, with about 909,000 people, is about 65% Black and about 20% Latino, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

And as the state escalated its immunization campaign, the Washington suburb has lagged behind other jurisdictions. Its residents have been vaccinated at the lowest rate in the state, and the site, selected by President Joe Biden’s administration, along with collaborative efforts from the state and county to vaccinate hard-to-reach populations, is expected to help close the gap.

Prince George’s County is the only jurisdiction in Maryland where under 13% of the residents have been fully vaccinated either by completing two-dose vaccine regimens made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna or by receiving one of the single-shot immunizations that Johnson & Johnson produces, according to state health department data.

At the opposite end of the pendulum, Talbot County has seen about 28.4% of its roughly 37,000 residents completely vaccinated.

Recently confirmed state Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader said that ensuring an equitable vaccine distribution by county and along racial lines was one of the two key guidelines for the state’s rollout. He was flanked at the news conference Wednesday by Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead, whose Vaccine Equity Taskforce has launched mobile vaccine clinics to get to hard-to-reach populations.

“As I’ve said many times we have the dual responsibility of speed and equity,” Schrader said Wednesday. “We’re getting the speed there and here in Prince George’s County we’re very focused on the equity.”

“It does not take talent to spot a problem, it does not take very much talent to spot what’s wrong,” said Alsobrooks, a Democrat. “It takes talent and commitment to fix it. And we’re here today to fix it.”

Hogan also said he learned on a call with White House officials Tuesday night that Maryland will receive thousands fewer doses of the single-shot coronavirus vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson.

The federal government’s plans to shrink state allocations of the Johnson & Johnson vaccines meant Maryland would get about 80,000 fewer immunizations, Hogan said. Hogan said it was a concerning development, though he expected providers across the state would be able to fulfill existing vaccination appointments.

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