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Maryland acting health secretary outlines COVID-19 vaccine allotment to four counties, draws further criticism

Maryland’s acting health secretary on Monday outlined to legislators a two-week breakdown of four counties’ allocation of COVID-19 vaccine in response to questions about local health departments’ declining allotments.

But the presentation, intended to provide a more complete picture into the state’s plan, stoked continued criticism of the vaccine rollout.

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State officials released a list Friday showing how many doses would be allotted to each local health department in the coming weeks, revealing wide disparities and failing to allay concerns over equity.

But Monday’s four-county explainer showcased the health department’s efforts to make decisions based on needs of each individual county, acting secretary Dennis R. Schrader said.

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  • Howard County, with a population of more than 325,000, will receive about 5,200 doses over the next two weeks, with 3,400 going to the health department, 1,200 to retail pharmacies and 600 to hospitals. A majority of the vaccines in Howard County have been administered by the health department, followed by the pharmacies and then the hospitals.
  • Baltimore, with a population a little above 600,000, will receive some 10,350 doses over the next two weeks, with about 4,000 going to the local health department, 3,050 to hospitals, 2,000 to retail pharmacies and 1,300 to federally qualified health centers. The city has administered a majority of its vaccinations via its health department, according to the state, followed by hospitals, pharmacies and then the health centers.
  • Prince George’s County, with a population of over 909,000, will receive about 19,600 doses over the next two weeks, with about 7,300 going to the local health department, 4,000 to retail pharmacies, 3,900 to hospitals, 3,400 to federally qualified health centers, and 1,000 to the mass vaccination center at Six Flags America in Bowie. There, a majority have been inoculated via the health department, followed by pharmacies, then hospitals, and then federally qualified health centers. About 5% have been administered elsewhere, according to the state.
  • Montgomery County, with a population of about 1.05 million, will receive 22,875 doses over the next two weeks, with 11,375 going to hospitals, 9,000 to the local health department, 2,000 to retail pharmacies and 500 to federally qualified health centers. Hospitals have been doing a majority of the vaccinations in the county, according to the state, followed by the local health department, pharmacies and health centers.

Schrader said the health department would release information about the rest of the counties’ allocation later this week.

The calls for more clarity come amid growing scrutiny of the Maryland Department of Health’s vaccination campaign, which has come under fire from lawmakers, local health officials and executives for its performance.

Members of the Senate Vaccine Oversight Workgroup meet weekly with Schrader to monitor the state’s vaccination operations. The information from the meetings will guide senators as they decide whether to confirm Schrader as state health secretary, Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson has said.

Maryland Sen. Clarence Lam, a physician who represents Baltimore and Howard counties, said the county-by-county breakdown further emphasizes the need for a statewide appointment booking portal that can direct people to the most convenient and accessible provider in their area, which has been dismissed by Schrader and Gov. Larry Hogan.

“We’ve looked at all 50 states in the union. There are four states that have a central registration system,” said Steve Kolbe, Maryland’s chief technology officer, who joined Schrader for the meeting. “That model that we’re following is a model that gets the vaccine out into as many places as possible rather than just going to specific county centers.”

Senators also questioned why Prince George’s County, home to nearly 15% of the state’s population, had received only 7% of the first doses administered statewide, while nearly every other jurisdiction had reported more proportional figures.

“For some reason, Prince George’s County is significantly behind, even with a mass [vaccination] site,” said Ferguson, who chairs the vaccine oversight committee. “Why is it not happening at pace?”

Schrader pointed to low levels of “vaccine confidence” among residents, many of whom are Black. He said more people from Montgomery County had claimed appointments at the mass vaccination clinic at Six Flags than residents of Prince George’s County had.

Sen. James C. Rosapepe, who represents Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, said that disparity underscored an access problem for communities of color.

“There are many Prince Georgians who want to get vaccines,” Rosapepe said, adding that a constituent texted him asking how to secure an appointment while he was in the meeting. “And to say nobody in Prince George’s wants a vaccine — therefore, they’re all coming from other places — doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

Meanwhile, Schrader said people who make COVID-19 vaccine appointments and show up to clinics without personal identity documents will not be turned away.

“If you show up, we ask for your ID, and we try to determine if you’re 65 or 75, or if you’re teacher, if you have a work ID. But if you’re undocumented, we’re not going to turn you away,” Schrader said during a virtual vaccine oversight meeting with state senators. “Or if you don’t happen to have an ID and it’s obvious you’re 65, we’re not going to turn you away.”

Schrader said those people without documentation would be asked to sign affidavits confirming that the information they have given to providers is truthful. He called it an “honor system” that puts the onus on vaccine recipients as well as providers to tell the truth.

Schrader’s response received pushback from some lawmakers, who criticized the approach during the meeting as too lax and disorganized.

“You’re the health department; we’re the state. In the end, we’re responsible for all the vaccines that come through the state of Maryland,” Sen. Mary Washington, a Democrat who represents Baltimore, told Schrader. “Our approach to making sure shots get into the right arms is ‘trust, but not verify.’ "

Washington said the approach also underscores the department’s lack of attention to detail, calling it a “less-than-coordinated” system for getting eligible people shots near or where they live.

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