Doses of the highly anticipated coronavirus vaccine could start arriving in Maryland as soon as next week, with the first shots reserved for hospital workers and nursing home residents and employees, state officials said Tuesday.
The state’s vaccination planning efforts have accelerated as multiple vaccine candidates near approval and as the infection rate and death toll from the pandemic climb. Distribution of 50,700 doses of a Pfizer vaccine could begin as soon as Monday, with 104,300 doses of a Moderna vaccine arriving a week later, Maryland health department officials said during a State House news conference.
The initial batch of vaccines will be enough to give just the first of two shots to about 155,000 people — just a tiny portion of what’s needed to eventually inoculate 6 million Marylanders, and not enough to cover the highest-priority groups. The second shot is required weeks later to achieve full efficacy, which is more than 94% for both the Pfizer and Moderna products.
The state expects to receive 300,000 doses by the end of the month, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said Tuesday afternoon at the news conference.
“This is by far the most massive undertaking of this pandemic,” Hogan said of the vaccine distribution.
With vaccine production expected to ramp up in the coming weeks and months, the state is laying the groundwork for eventual mass distribution. The Maryland Department of Health issued an order Tuesday that allows any licensed health care provider with proper training — including doctors, nurses, pharmacists and paramedics — to administer the vaccine.
It may be months before the general public will be able to get the vaccine, as the state works through a list of priority groups, starting with health care workers and nursing home residents, followed by those at highest risk of complications and death, essential workers, people at moderate risk of severe illness and, finally, those without risk factors.
Maryland has 227 nursing homes and 1,668 assisted-living facilities. The state has signed them up for a federal distribution partnership through CVS and Walgreens.
“As any good planner would say, ‘You prepare for the worst and you hope for the best,’” said Dr. Jinlene Chan, the state’s top public health official.
The first two dozen hospitals to receive the vaccine are ready to start vaccinating their workers as soon as they get the doses, said Bob Atlas, president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association. Those who are most likely to come into contact with coronavirus patients will get the shots first, he said.
“All the state’s hospitals have been preparing to receive, store and administer the vaccine,” Atlas said.
Nursing homes and assisted living facilities, charged with overseeing some of Maryland’s most vulnerable residents, will face a series of challenges as they decide who in their care to vaccinate first, and where, said Joseph DeMattos, president and CEO of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland.
“The massiveness of the vaccine undertaking, the limited supply of the vaccine, and the conditions on the ground in nursing homes in Maryland and around the country, make it unlikely that we will see the full impact of the vaccine until March of 2021,” DeMattos said. “Yet again with COVID-19, we’re attempting to do something that’s never been done before. So, there are going to be bumps in the road.”
Eventually the vaccine will be available to the general public at pharmacies and doctor’s offices, said Bryan Mroz, a nurse who is the chief medical officer and assistant secretary for the state health department.
“That’s where we want it to be in the end. But we have to go through those steps,” he said. “And as vaccines become more and more available, it spreads out faster and faster.”
The prioritization of different groups was done following federal guidelines, and also in hopes that by vaccinating those at highest risk of complications first, hospitals would be able to maintain enough room to treat all those who fall ill.
Hospital capacity has been a key concern throughout the pandemic, as beds fill with patients suffering from COVID-19, the sickness caused by the coronavirus.
As of Tuesday, 1,653 people were being treated for COVID-19 in Maryland hospitals, a number that has increased dramatically in the past month. The hospitalization rate is nearing the April 30 peak of 1,711 patients, during the first wave of the pandemic.
Because of a lag between when people were exposed during Thanksgiving travel and when they test positive, Hogan said: “It will get worse next week. All of December and January looks pretty rough.”
Even with Hogan indicating that the pandemic will get worse while most people wait for access to the vaccines, he did not further restrict Marylanders’ activities Tuesday. Most places of business, houses of worship, stores, gyms and restaurants have capacity restrictions; restaurants have a 10 p.m. closing time for their dining rooms, and masks are generally required in public.
“We’re looking at the data about where the infections are coming from and what actions might help stop them,” Hogan said. “And so far, we’ve taken all the actions that we believe should be taken at this point.”
Local governments can institute tougher restrictions than the state, and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said he’s considering doing just that. Pittman, a Democrat, said Tuesday that his county could face more restrictions by the end of the week, as he’s concerned that hospitals might soon be overloaded with patients.
There remains skepticism about vaccines, and health officials are concerned about how many people might chose to not get vaccinated.
A national Gallup Poll conducted in late October and early November — before news about the successful trials of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — found 58% of respondents were likely to get the vaccine.
The state is planning to roll out a marketing campaign to educate the public about vaccines in hopes of improving “vaccine confidence.” They plan to use “trusted community voices” to communicate what’s known about the vaccines, including possible side effects.
Chan said most people did not have side effects in vaccine trials, but some had mild fever, headaches or pain at the injection site. She said additional studies will provide more clarity on the safety of the vaccines in children and whether people would need to be vaccinated annually, as they do for the flu.
Hogan said the state would engage “at a micro-local level” with community leaders to encourage people to get the vaccine.
”We’ve got to convince folks to do it or else we’re not going to be able to stop the spread,” the governor said.
Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford pledged Tuesday to receive their shots in public as soon as they’re eligible to get them. Hogan is 64 and is a cancer survivor, and Rutherford is 63.
Asked if the vaccine could be made mandatory for schoolchildren, like vaccines for childhood diseases, Hogan said: “We don’t have any intention of requiring these vaccines, but we’re going to do everything we can to encourage.”
Maryland’s medical community will focus on vaccinating a diverse range of residents, including those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, said Dr. Mohan Suntha, president and CEO of the University of Maryland Medical System, during a virtual seminar the Greater Baltimore Committee hosted Tuesday morning.
Though the public health crisis has exacerbated existing health care inequities along lines of race, ethnicity and class, Suntha said, widespread vaccination would be a first step toward remedying disparities.
“We should consider it a failure if those with the greatest risk are the least vaccinated,” said Suntha, adding that faith leaders, nonprofit groups and the business sector will have to join the messaging campaign.
Part of the challenge of mass vaccination will be overcoming the politicization of the science, said Kevin Sowers, president of Johns Hopkins Health System and another panelist at the GBC event. He said he expects Hopkins to receive about 975 of the first available doses, which will be distributed among the health network’s 35,000 employees based on their vulnerability to the virus, as well as their exposure levels.
Some people will need convincing that they aren’t “guinea pigs” in a global experiment, Sowers said.
“There’s a lot we’ll have to do on the community level,” he said. “It can’t just be our voice.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Ben Leonard and Hallie Miller and Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Olivia Sanchez contributed to this article.