In the absence of clear directives from the state, and sufficient resources from the federal government, Maryland county health officials are scrambling to set up vaccination appointments for residents after Gov. Larry Hogan expanded eligibility requirements Thursday to include senior citizens, educators and others.
Demand for vaccines soared immediately following Hogan’s announcement, prompting Marylanders to clog the phone lines of local health departments, health systems and lawmakers’ offices. A state website meant to help connect those seeking appointments with registrars did little to satisfy public pressure.
“There’s no centrality to this,” said Jim Smith, 77, a Southwest Baltimore resident who has not been able to make an appointment.
Slots in the city have been filled through the end of the month, meaning Smith and his wife must wait.
Several county health departments created online registration forms to ease the demand on the phone lines and provide some comfort to those seeking to move forward, leading to tens of thousands of requests for appointments that may not be available for several weeks or months still.
Short staffed and under-funded, the departments have needed to map out the logistics of a complex system of vaccinations largely on their own.
“We’re trying to figure it out as we go,” said Molly Mraz, a spokesperson for the Harford County Health Department, which garnered more than 18,000 pre-registrations since Friday and had its website crash. “The state is only giving counties a certain number of vaccines each week, and resources are limited. And on the turn of a dime, things can change.”
Similar constraints have dogged Baltimore County, which has had more than 72,000 people pre-register for appointments since Friday.
County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. reminded constituents Tuesday that local governments constitute “the end of the supply chain.”
“We, like all local jurisdictions, continue to face a severely limited supply of vaccine doses,” he said.
As a shortage of supplies and vaccinators threatens to stall the national vaccination campaign, Maryland officials are urging patience. But the vaccines — exceeding expectations in their effectiveness — have become critical amid the latest surge of the coronavirus pandemic, with the number of daily new cases, fatalities and total patients hospitalized continuing to set records this month.
With vaccine hesitancy — an unwillingness to get inoculated — posing less of a problem than originally expected, public health professionals and state officials said they must work to overcome the crippling “last mile” — getting the shots in arms.
“How we get ourselves back to ‘normal’ is to get as many people vaccinated as we can,” said Dr. Anna Durbin, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, during a virtual event Tuesday hosted by the Greater Baltimore Committee.
Dr. Durbin said two more vaccine candidates could receive emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by mid-February, which could flood the supply chain with more product streams and ease the ongoing strains. She said she expects all vaccine candidates to offer similar levels of efficacy when they come online.
Until then, top state lawmakers said they will continue to press for progress, with the Maryland Senate planning to hold weekly meetings with state health officials.
“Our goal is not to micromanage the vaccination program,” Senate President Bill Ferguson said.
Rather, the Baltimore Democrat said the Senate won’t consider taking a confirmation vote on Acting Health Secretary Dennis Schrader until the vaccine rollout improves. Ferguson did not set specific metrics, but said improving the vaccination program is “a piece of the puzzle for confirmation.”
“What we need to see is progress,” he said. “We must get this right.”
In Maryland, some 265,657 doses of the vaccine had been administered as of Tuesday, representing less than half of the total number of vaccines distributed statewide, according to state health department data. Hampered by budget constraints, staffing deficits and capacity limitations, allocation has moved slower than anticipated across the country.
Many providers also were holding back on doses to be sure they had enough for a required second dose of the two available vaccines.
“To a certain extent, [an uneven rollout] was to be expected,” said Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s top public health official. “Counties have different capacities, and at the state level, the governor instructed us to provide support where needed. We’re helping with staffing but also with planning. A lot can be done with staffing but we continue to work out where the other barriers might be.”
Maryland Department of Health spokesman Charles Gischlar said in an email that the federal government is distributing about 10,000 doses per day to the state. About 1.5 million residents are now eligible for vaccines, he said.
At that rate it would take 150 days — until mid-June — to give everyone a single-dose, never mind the needed second dose to achieve the best immunity. Officials do hope that the supply continues to expand rapidly and it will take less time to inoculate those eligible.
The state’s mass vaccination campaign kicked off in mid-December, starting with front-line health care workers, nursing home residents and their caretakers, as well as first responders.
The administration of outgoing President Donald Trump, while credited for helping fast-track the vaccine candidates in an unprecedentedly short timeframe, did not provide sufficient instruction or support for states as they worked to get shots into arms, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, said Tuesday.
Van Hollen said President-elect Joe Biden, who is to be sworn in as president Wednesday, will make abating the coronavirus his No. 1 priority, starting with a nearly $2 trillion relief package that includes more federal funding allocated to states.
“Part of the Biden Administration’s plan is to have more of a federal strategy, and not allowing state and local bottlenecks to prevent distribution,” Van Hollen said during a virtual event hosted Tuesday by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. “The bottom line is the incoming president is going to use all the powers available to us, and all the resources, to keep the vaccine supply growing and distributed.”
Breaking News Alerts
Federal and state partners also are tasked with ensuring the distribution process remains equitable, reaching not only the oldest people but also those most at risk of contracting the virus and developing serious illness.
Already, some Marylanders who qualify for vaccinations lack the tools or capability to pre-register online, a setback which threatens to further hamper vaccination progress.
When Carole Weinberg, 79, learned she had become eligible overnight to receive a vaccination, the Randallstown resident was elated. Until she tried to sign up for her shot.
Weinberg said she called the Baltimore County Health Department, every pharmacy around, a hospital, her doctor’s office. She even looked for the phone number for the TV station that broadcast Hogan’s announcement. They all said the same thing, she recalled: “We can’t do it unless you have a computer. And that was the end of the conversation.”
But Weinberg doesn’t have one. As she puts it, she’s made it almost 80 years without a computer and doesn’t plan to change that now. But that shouldn’t preclude her from getting a vaccine, she told The Sun, or to force her to “bother” a friend or family member to help her.
“There is a very large population, I’m certain, of seniors that are without computers,” Weinberg said. “And the ones that have it are not technically able to fill out those registration forms, I’ve found out. And that’s a huge population that fell through the cracks.”
Baltimore Sun Media reporters Pamela Wood, Meredith Cohn and Taylor DeVille contributed to this article.
An earlier version incorrectly described how many people in Maryland have received the vaccine. The Sun regrets the error.