At a news conference touting his administration’s new mass COVID-19 vaccination site in Baltimore, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said his state’s largest city had been getting more doses of immunizations than it was “entitled to,” highlighting familiar tension between the state and the city that drew fresh ire from some leaders.
Hogan was asked Thursday by a reporter whether a portion of the shares Maryland was sending to the mass vaccination clinic at M&T Bank Stadium, which is open to any eligible person in the state, would be set aside for Baltimore residents — as Maryland officials opted to do with the mass vaccination site at Six Flags in Prince George’s County.
The governor said the Maryland Department of Health’s Vaccine Equity Task Force likely would look into it, though “as of last week, Baltimore City had gotten far more than they really were entitled to.”
In an interview Friday, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said he’d advocated for doses to be set aside from the mass vaccination site for city residents, like at Six Flags. He said he asked for 50% of the doses to be reserved for Baltimore residents, but he was open to negotiate.
Scott said he was dismayed by Hogan’s comments, which he described as “one of the most ridiculous things that I’ve ever heard.”
“We do not have equitable access to vaccine doses. I think our citizens in Baltimore know a dog whistle when they see one,” Scott said. “Baltimoreans are Marylanders who both are entitled to and deserve vaccine.”
Scott added that his health department has been forced to work around a “broken” state sign-up system that relies heavily on internet access and puts vulnerable residents at a disadvantage. He said the state has ignored such barriers.
Michael Ricci, a spokesman for the governor, defended Hogan and the state’s role in doling out the vaccine in Baltimore. He said in a Friday afternoon email the “governor’s information is sound. The city received 14,000 vaccines for this week.”
”The state plays a major role in establishing partnerships and working with providers to ensure equitable access,” Ricci said. “For example, the Vaccine Equity Task Force is holding a clinic this afternoon at Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ in partnership with Hopkins.”
But how Baltimore’s share of the state’s vaccine allocation stacks up to other jurisdictions is difficult to discern, as Hogan’s administration has refused to release comprehensive data about how many doses each county and each provider within those jurisdictions have gotten from the time vaccines first arrived in the state in mid-December.
It’s likely many doses flowed through Baltimore in the earliest stages of the state’s rollout, which focused on vaccinating front-line health care workers. The city is home to about a dozen hospitals, including the large Johns Hopkins Hospital and University of Maryland Medical Center.
Roughly 11.1% of Baltimore residents have received a preliminary immunization, while about 6.4% have received both doses required to protect against severe illness. Like Prince George’s County, Baltimore’s population is predominantly Black. Statewide, white residents have received roughly four times as many vaccine doses as Black people.
Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, vice dean in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, called Hogan’s statement “baffling” considering that “there’s a gap in city residents getting vaccinated.” While hospitals are critical vaccinator, Sharfstein said, the state might need to reconsider how it accounts for the doses it sends them.
“Because the hospital system serves the whole state, it wouldn’t make sense to me to count the hospital allocations against the specific counties where the hospitals are located,” said Sharfstein, who was once Baltimore health commissioner. “Doing so would disadvantage the counties that have the most hospitals, particularly Baltimore City.”
In his remarks Thursday, Hogan said there were now two mass vaccination clinics in Baltimore, the other located at the Convention Center, and cited vaccine reluctance in some city communities. He also called into question the volume of vaccines administered by the Baltimore City Health Department, though Hogan’s administration decides how many doses each local health department gets.
“The city health department is only doing 14% of the shots here in the city,” Hogan said. “We’re doing, with other partners, 86% of the effort.”
Scott was frustrated that Hogan would disparage his health department. He said he spoke with the governor about allowing the city’s health department to reallocate some of its doses to other providers in the city. So it was misleading for the governor to “turn around and say ‘Oh, well they’re only doing this,’” Scott said. “You can’t speak out of both sides.”
Hogan has “poked his finger in the city’s eye” before, said Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. For example, Hogan killed the city’s Red Line light rail project when he first took office. That’s just the latest example of a disjointed relationship between the city and state dating to a time when differing economies — grain in Baltimore, tobacco throughout the rest of state — fueled friction, he said.
“This is an old story,” Crenson said. “The city and the state, there’s always been a tension there, going all the way back to the 18th century.”
Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa explained in a statement Thursday how her department planned to reallocate vaccines to other providers in the city for the first week of March, an effort she said was intended to “prioritize our most vulnerable populations” amidst a constrained supply.
The Baltimore City Health Department expects to get 3,500 doses next week, according to a news release. It plans to use 500 doses itself at a closed “point of distribution site” at Baltimore City Community College, while it was giving 700 doses to city hospitals to vaccinate educators, 1,500 doses to point of distribution sites where hospitals were to vaccinate older adults and 800 for mobile vaccination clinics.
The Maryland Department of Health released the most comprehensive look at the state’s allocation plan to state senators on the Vaccine Oversight Workgroup nearly two weeks ago. The figures included details about allocations in four jurisdictions over two weeks in February.
It showed that Baltimore, which has about 593,000 residents, got 10,350 doses over the two weeks beginning Feb. 8 and ending Feb. 21. Those doses were divided among the city health department, hospitals, retail pharmacies, federally qualified health centers and large health care providers
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During the same window, Howard County, which has about 326,000 residents, got about 5,200 doses total spread out among its health department, hospitals and retail pharmacies. Montgomery County, the most populated jurisdiction in the state with 1.05 million people, received 22,875 doses spread among various providers. With a population of 909,000, the second biggest population in Maryland, Prince George’s County’s range of providers received a total of 19,600 immunizations.
Those four counties are the only jurisdictions the state health department has provided detailed allocation data for, though just for that two-week period.
Local and legislative leaders have called for greater transparency about how the state is divvying up its share of vaccines. Meanwhile, tensions boiled over about Hogan’s relationship with the city.
State Del. Marlon Amprey, a recently appointed Baltimore Democrat, in a tweet doubted many of the doses allocated to the city were being shot into the arms of Baltimore residents.
Hogan’s appearance at M&T Bank Stadium was “performative politics,” and doesn’t address equity issues in the vaccine rollout, Amprey said in an interview.
For Amprey, Hogan’s appearance recalled images from 2017 of former President Donald Trump tossing paper towel rolls into a crowd of hurricane survivors in Puerto Rico.
“He shows up in Baltimore and says that he does things for Baltimore just to say he did,” Amprey said.
An earlier version of this story included incorrect data on Baltimore City's vaccination rates. the Sun regrets the error.