Still faced with frustrations over Maryland’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday that the state would launch a mass vaccination site in the southern part of the state by March 11.
Hogan also added a heightened sense of urgency to the vaccination campaign in light of the spread of several coronavirus variants in Maryland. At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, the Republican described the effort as a “race against the variants.”
The Charles County stadium of the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs minor league baseball team will host Maryland’s fourth mass vaccination site, which will be run in partnership with the Charles County Regional Medical Center and with the support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Hogan said. The federal agency does not provide vaccines but helps with medical equipment associated with immunizations.
Charles County neighbors Prince George’s County in the region of Maryland surrounding Washington, D.C. They are the only two counties in the state that have administered first doses of the vaccine to less than 10% of their populations, which together make up about 18% of Maryland’s more than 6 million people.
U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin and Reps. Steny Hoyer and Anthony Brown praised the addition of a mass vaccination site in Charles County.
“As the state faces difficulty in vaccine delivery to the hardest hit communities, we will continue pushing for federal resources to help expand distribution and reduce disparities in access,” the Maryland Democrats wrote in a statement.
Hogan said mass vaccinations sites on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland will be opened within “the coming weeks.” Mass vaccination clinics have already been sticking shots into the arms of Marylanders at the Six Flags America amusement park in Prince George’s County and the Convention Center in Baltimore, with another site going online Thursday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
The Republican governor lauded their capacity to vaccinate thousands of Marylanders per day but continued to blame the shortage of vaccines for the frustrations of many residents who have struggled to book immunization appointments.
More than 1.1 million vaccines had been administered across Maryland as of Tuesday morning, with almost 747,000 people having received their preliminary immunization and 365,723 having received both doses required to protect against severe illness, according to the Maryland Department of Health. Those figures represent about 12% and 6% of the state’s population, respectively.
Maryland has averaged 29,096 immunizations per day over the past seven days, a rate Hogan said outweighs the number of doses the state receives each week from the federal government.
But data collated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that Maryland continues to lag behind most other states when it comes to its vaccination performance. As of Tuesday, Maryland ranked 41st of 50 states and the District of Columbia for the number of doses it has administered per 100,000 residents.
Additional vaccines could be on the way soon: Hogan said top White House officials told governors on a conference call Tuesday that a decision from federal regulators on whether to issue emergency approval for Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine could come as soon as Friday. Millions of doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have already been produced, including by Emergent BioSolutions in Maryland, and Hogan said White House officials told him states could begin receiving shipments of doses as early as next week if U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials sign off on the vaccine.
Hogan touted promising statistics about the disease’s slowed spread in the state — the rate of new cases, testing positivity and hospitalizations have all trended down over the past weeks. But the governor said this is no time for Marylanders to become complacent considering the “crazy variants” of the coronavirus, cases of which have doubled over the last two weeks.
There have been 60 cases detected in Maryland of virus variants first found in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, all of which are believed to be more contagious than the original virus that causes COVID-19, said Dr. Jinlene Chan, the state’s acting deputy secretary for public health. The majority of cases in Maryland are of the strain first detected in the United Kingdom, which was first identified in Maryland in January.
Extensive contact tracing found that the majority of known cases of the variants were in people who hadn’t traveled recently and hadn’t been directly exposed to people who had, Chan said.
“What that indicates to us is that there is ongoing community transmission here in the state,” Chan said. She urged residents to be vigilant about mask-wearing, physical distancing and hand-washing.
Hogan announced the state’s public health lab is expanding further its capacity to conduct genomic sequencing — or analyzing the virus to detect its variants — by partnering with Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore. The collaboration will allow the state to sequence about 10% of coronavirus cases, the governor said.
Chan said it’s not surprising that more cases have been detected, considering the state has ramped up genomic sequencing. She expects more cases to crop up, with the health department urging clinicians to report certain types of COVID-19 cases, like those detected in people who’ve already been vaccinated.
In addition to bolstering the genomic sequencing phase from 300 sequences a week to “over 700 sequences,” the state has been conducting “very comprehensive” contact tracing after identifying cases of the various, Chan said. This helps health officials understand how the cases have spread and to understand the variant’s effects.