Following an initial rollout of coronavirus vaccinations that was slower than expected, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced actions Tuesday to speed up the process, while cautioning against assigning blame.
“I just want to help fix the problem. I don’t want to blame,” the Republican governor said during a State House news conference. “Everyone is trying to do their best. There is not one particular glitch in the system.”
Hogan pledged that vaccines soon would be administered so quickly that the state would be using up its doses of vaccines before the next shipments arrive.
“We’re going to be flipping the switch here in a couple weeks,” he said.
He also laid out details of when more Marylanders will be eligible to get their shots in a timeline that ran through early March.
Saying that lags in reporting data on the use of available doses have given an inaccurate picture of the state’s progress and made it hard to identify problem areas, Hogan issued an executive order requiring vaccine providers to report each person’s inoculation on a state registry, ImmuNet, within 24 hours.
He also said that hospitals that haven’t used 75% of their allocations may get fewer doses in the future unless they can prove they can distribute vaccines efficiently.
“While none of us are thrilled with the pace of this rollout over the first couple of weeks, I can assure you that it is improving every day,” said Hogan.
“Either use the doses that have been allocated, or they will be allocated to another provider,” he instructed.
In addition, Maryland National Guard members will be activated to provide support to county health departments with both giving vaccines and administering the process.
“While none of us are thrilled with the pace of this rollout over the first couple of weeks, I can assure you that it is improving every day,” Hogan said.
Hogan also said he pressed the leaders of the pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens, which are handling nursing home vaccinations in Maryland as part of a contract with the federal government, about the pace of their vaccinations and reporting.
The governor said he had “productive” conversations Tuesday with CVS CEO Larry Merlo and Walgreens President John Standley. Hogan also said he contacted U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Tuesday “to express our serious concerns about the pace of the federal nursing home/pharmacy program.”
With the timeline, Hogan began providing information to answer the question many Marylanders have: When will it be my turn?
The state’s plan now includes more phases for rolling out vaccines as supplies expand. The state is in Phase 1A, with inoculations for hospital and healthcare workers, first responders and nursing home staff and residents.
Next will be Phase 1B, potentially at the end of this month, with vaccines then reaching assisted living facilities, group homes, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, educators, key government employees and adults age 75 and older.
Phase 1C may come in early March, with adults age 65 to 74, additional public safety and health workers, and key employees in food production, grocery stores, manufacturing, public transit and the postal service.
Hogan would not predict when vaccinations would reach Phase 2. He said that group would include adults with underlying medical conditions, people who are incarcerated and more essential workers.
The final phase, now known as Phase 3, would be the general adult population.
Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, said in a statement Tuesday night that the union that represents the majority of the state’s teachers looked “forward to a wider administration of vaccinations for educators.”
“We are pleased about the new prioritization to receive vaccinations within Phase 1B given to educators,” Bost said.
Hogan has come under fire for the pace of vaccine administration in the state. Hospital workers received the first shots in mid-December, followed by vaccination programs at nursing homes and for some medical workers, first responders and local health department workers.
Hogan said 270,150 doses of the vaccines had been distributed “directly into the hands of front-line vaccinators” in Maryland.
As of Tuesday morning, nearly 77,000 people had received their first of two shots — an increase of more than 11,000 from the day before, but still only reaching 1.27% of the state’s population.
While the pace has picked up, Maryland ranked, at one point last week, at the bottom of states in a Bloomberg News survey of vaccine rollout.
The vaccinations at nursing homes may be under-reported. Joe DeMattos, CEO of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland, said the number of people vaccinated in nursing homes is greater than the governor indicated, but hasn’t been recorded officially.
In addition to initial logistical challenges in setting up the shots and getting family members to approve medical paperwork, nursing homes are seeing some hestitancy among staff to get vaccinated, DeMattos said.
About 55% of nursing home workers have been willing to get the vaccine, while the remainder “do not want to be first,” he said. The vaccination rate for residents is about 85%, he said.
“We’d all like to see more vaccines into the arms of Marylanders in need more quickly, but in terms of the federal CVS-Walgreens program, we are on par for being two weeks into it,” DeMattos said. “There is every expectation that it will get better over time.”
Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s acting deputy public health secretary, said “there’s a lot that’s been happening behind the scenes” in the past week with vaccine providers, including staff training, notifying people who are to get vaccines and setting up sites.
As the state gets more vaccine doses and moves into further stages, more providers — primary care, federally qualified health centers, pharmacies and others — will be added to the distribution program, Chan said.
Five counties — Howard, Calvert, Caroline, Montgomery and St. Mary’s — already have distributed 80% of their vaccine allocations, Hogan said. Meanwhile, Prince George’s County and Baltimore City “are very far behind,” he said.
“If we have to send in the National Guard to help them, that’s what we’ll do.”
The vaccine doses do not pass through the state’s hands; they are sent directly to the facilities administering the doses.
Of the state’s doses, 35,200 have been sent to local health departments, and 32.4% of them have been administered, Hogan said Tuesday.
Another 163,225 doses were distributed to hospitals, of which 34.3% have been administered. The slowest hospital in the state has completed only 16% of its allocation, Hogan said. A chart shown by the governor indicated that was the Adventist HealthCare System, which is based in Montgomery County.
“I want to assure the people of Maryland that we are going to leverage very single resources at our disposal to get more shots into more arms as quickly as we possibly can in a safe and orderly way,” Hogan said.
Hogan sent a letter Monday to the Maryland Hospital Administration, noting that he was “concerned” about the pace of hospital vaccinations. Hogan said the state was “ready and willing” to help hospitals speed up, by providing supplies, staff or logistics support.
“As of today, second doses have already begun at Maryland hospitals,” the governor said Tuesday.
Bob Atlas, president of the hospital association, told The Baltimore Sun that the second batch of vaccines arrived at hospitals just before Christmas, which made it challenging to vaccinate large numbers of employees. Hospitals also have to stagger vaccinations in case of bad reactions, and they have to pull staff from other duties to give the shots.
“The numbers will rise markedly this week,” Atlas said.
State Sen. Clarence Lam, a physician and Democrat who represents areas of Baltimore and Howard counties, said the rollout in Maryland “has suffered from a lack of coordination and oversight” from the state.
Lam said the Hogan administration’s plan “placed a lot on the backs” of hospitals, clinics, county health departments and other entities, instead of “taking clear ownership to lead and quarterback this effort.”
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“The hospitals, health systems and local health departments are doing the best they can in what’s been a vacuum of information,” he said.
State Sen. Delores Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, said Hogan’s remarks did not alleviate her growing worries about the rollout.
Kelley said much of the blame lies with Republican President Donald Trump’s administration, but she also thinks state health officials could have been better prepared.
“I can’t say it all lies at the foot of any one entity that ought to be doing its job,” said Kelley, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees health issues.
“All of that leaves me worried about the shape we’re really in,” she added. “They couldn’t have known how bad the job would be that the feds would do, but I’m not sure that they had a plan for what to do when the vaccines hit our borders ... I don’t feel as confident as I wish I could as to what is going on.”