Maryland will dramatically expand COVID-19 vaccination eligibility in a series of steps beginning Tuesday and continuing over the coming weeks, culminating with plans to offer the shot to all adult Marylanders before the end of April, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Thursday.
Hogan said the move came after the White House told governors to expect shipments of vaccine doses to jump sharply at the end of March, helping ease a supply crunch that’s held back vaccination efforts nationwide.
Maryland will expand vaccine eligibility to everyone age 16 or older “no later than April 27,” Hogan said at an afternoon news conference at the State House in Annapolis. In the meantime, the Republican governor said the state will expand eligibility in “waves” that accommodate risk factors like age, occupation and underlying health conditions.
Beginning Tuesday, vaccinations will be open to Marylanders 60 and older, who can preregister now for appointments at Maryland’s mass vaccination clinics by phone or online, Hogan said. A week later — on March 30 — eligibility will expand further to include any resident age 16 or older with an underlying medical condition that increases the risk for severe COVID illness.
The state didn’t immediately announce details of which existing health conditions would qualify for vaccinations. A spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Health said the agency is reviewing guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and would have more information next week.
By April 13, Hogan said, the state will make anyone 55 or older, as well as essential workers in a slew of additional industries — including food service, construction, transportation, utilities, other infrastructure workers and some of those in finance and information technology — eligible to get a shot.
Those moves will make about 1.84 million Marylanders newly eligible for the vaccine, according to the state health department, with another 1.15 million people to follow once the state opens appointments to everyone over the age of 16.
“This is an exciting day for Maryland,” Hogan said. “We are now one big step closer to reach that light at the tunnel we’ve been talking about.”
Federal regulators have not yet approved vaccines for children 15 or younger because initial clinical trials for the three vaccines currently approved for use in the U.S. did not include children among their volunteer test subjects.
Only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved for 16- and 17-year-olds, while the vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are approved for those 18 and older. Several studies are now evaluating the safety and effectiveness of vaccines in younger children.
For the first time in Maryland, primary care doctors will be tapped to help put shots in arms, Hogan said Thursday. The state is sending doses this week to primary care clinics to begin immunizing eligible patients.
Dr. Howard Haft, executive director of the Maryland Primary Care Program, said community providers “have a special relationship with patients,” and can address vaccine hesitancy on a personal level.
Gene Ransom, who leads MedChi, an association of Maryland doctors, praised the move and said physicians are eager to administer vaccines in their offices. Ransom said the step “will help patients with complex conditions and in underserved communities gain access to the lifesaving vaccine.”
Hogan also announced $12 million in state grants to fund partnerships between hospitals and community groups to stand up neighborhood vaccination programs, as well as the launch of bus-based vaccine clinics to administer doses in hard-to-reach rural stretches of the state.
Right now, Maryland’s vaccination campaign is focused on those 65 and older, front-line health care workers, teachers, nursing home staff and residents, certain government employees and essential workers, clergy, and individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities or who are severely immunocompromised, among other groups. More than 2 million Marylanders were estimated to be part of vaccine eligibility Phases 1A, 1B and 1C.
As of Thursday morning, more than 2 million doses of vaccines had been administered across the state. Some 740,887 people, or about 12.25% of Maryland’s population, had been fully vaccinated. The state is averaging more than 43,000 immunizations daily.
Tammy Bresnahan of AARP Maryland called Hogan’s announcement a mixed bag.
Making those age 60 and older eligible next week will help people who are at higher risk for severe illness get vaccinated, said Bresnahan, the retiree group’s associate director of advocacy. But she also said opening the next phases up so quickly, on a promise of an increased vaccine supply down the road, could mean more frustration for people trying to get appointments.
“We wanted to see people 60-plus become eligible,” Bresnahan said. “I hear from people right and left from people who are 64 and taking care of an aging parent or a sick child and they want to be vaccinated and don’t meet criteria. But Gov. Hogan added new pilot programs and so many other people. Individually, it all sounds good, but my hope is it doesn’t create more confusion.”
Some other states have moved more quickly to open vaccinations to the general public, following the lead of Alaska and Mississippi, where all residents 16 and older are eligible for shots. Shortly after Hogan’s announcement, Missouri’s governor said his state would do the same by April 9.
After talking with White House officials, Hogan said the state was expecting after March 29 a significant increase in the supply of the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, as well as a steady flow of the one-shot J&J immunizations.
But Hogan had expressed caution about moving too quickly and outpacing supplies, leaving millions of nominally eligible Marylanders scrambling to book scare appointments and unable to find actual doses.
“We’re concerned some states might be opening things up without any vaccines,” Hogan told The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday.
Hogan’s administration chose to spread its vaccine supply among a range of providers, including local health departments, hospitals, pharmacies, health centers and state-run mass vaccination clinics. Many have struggled to navigate a hodgepodge of separate booking systems for vaccine appointments — most of them online — to secure immunizations. It’s a particular challenge for older people and those with low incomes, who lack computer skills or internet access.
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The governor and his deputies have acknowledged the issues but consistently cited supply as the overarching problem — and argued that the wide network of providers will pay dividends once vaccine supplies increase by speeding vaccinations.
Sen. James C. Rosapepe, a Democrat who sits on a state Senate vaccine oversight committee, said confusion about appointments and eligibility and questions about how the state is divvying up doses among providers left him concerned whether the state could hit the “great goal” laid out by Hogan.
“We’ve had chaos for three months because the state knew the vaccine was coming but didn’t have a plan,” said Rosapepe, who represents parts of Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties. “They’ve gradually been fixing things over the last three months and it’s better than it was, for sure, but we only have six weeks.”
Hogan warned that vaccine appointments will likely remain scarce and hard to get for “the next several weeks,” but said he hopes bigger federal vaccine deliveries will soon solve that problem.
Although federal officials have been careful not to promise specific numbers of doses, the governor said they’ve sounded confident about major improvements in the near future.
“If they deliver as they say they’re going to deliver, April is going to look a heck of a lot different from March,” said Hogan.
Baltimore Sun reporters Meredith Cohn and Hallie Miller contributed to this article.