Maryland health officials opened COVID-19 vaccination appointment eligibility Monday to adults 65 and older, and to some categories of essential workers, despite a limited vaccine supply preventing county-level health departments, pharmacies and hospital systems from getting shots into arms.
Several counties, though now required by the Maryland Department of Health to prioritize Phase 1A, 1B and 1C candidates for appointments, have depleted their vaccine inventory, save for vials reserved for people who still need the second of two doses. Both of the authorized vaccines in the United States, made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, call for two shots — three and four weeks apart, respectively — to achieve maximum protection against serious illness.
Health officials estimate needing 2 million to 3 million doses of the two-dose vaccines to complete all of Phase 1. The state already has received a little more than 500,000 doses and distributed 72% of those, according to the health department, which said Maryland receives about 10,000 new doses of vaccine a day from the federal government.
At that rate, it would take five to more than eight months to get enough doses to inoculate everyone in Phase 1.
Baltimore City and counties including Anne Arundel, Carroll, Howard and Montgomery are not vaccinating 1C candidates even though the state made them eligible.
“While eligibility has been broadened, vaccine availability has remained the same, creating a bottleneck, and frustrating residents,” a statement from the Baltimore City Health Department said Monday. “Right now, we have to prioritize the ‘second dose’ vaccinations of those first responders, health care workers, and other members of Priority Group 1A and 1B that made and had their first appointments in January.”
The race to secure vaccination appointments has intensified over the past several weeks as the disease caused by the coronavirus shattered daily records for cases, deaths and hospitalizations. More than 420,000 Americans have died due to COVID-19 complications since March, including 6,726 Marylanders, according to data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center and the state health department.
Appointment slots have been difficult to procure, especially for people lacking digital fluency, those without broadband internet access and communities without pharmacies, health care providers and transportation.
“I’m not getting any response that I know of,” said Jerome Edwards, an 87-year-old Maryland resident who splits his time between Phoenix in Baltimore County and Berlin in Worcester County on the Eastern Shore. “I went online; called my family doctor. I got my daughter trying to work on it. I want it as soon as possible.”
Jerome and other Maryland residents have scrambled to find appointments across the state since they became eligible to receive the vaccinations, often registering multiple times or with multiple counties until they are called up. Phone lines and email inboxes at health departments, hospitals and family care providers have been clogged with demand for appointments. A state website meant to connect eligible candidates with vaccines created even more turmoil and produced little relief.
As a new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus has begun to circulate, health officials and public health experts fear that the onslaught of casualties linked to the public health crisis will outpace vaccination progress. As of Monday, about 53% of the total doses allocated in the United States have been administered, with some 18 million people having at least one dose.
AARP Maryland, a state-level interest group that represents Americans age 50 and older, called on Gov. Larry Hogan and members of the legislature Monday to address the concerns raised by members, who say the appointment registration system has been uneven in its reach and flawed in its accessibility.
“More immediate assistance is necessary for older Marylanders who are not tech-savvy and who are experiencing difficulties signing up for vaccinations online, and those without online access,” said Hank Greenberg, state director of AARP Maryland, in a letter. “There must be a central, easy to remember, easy to use, one-stop location for all Marylanders to access this lifesaving vaccine.”
Dennis Schrader, the state’s acting health secretary, said the state can immunize about 13,000 people a day. At that rate, “we’ll probably run out” of the backlogged supply of doses, he said Monday.
“The demand will outstrip supply,” Schrader told a panel of state senators Monday.
Even so, he said the state feels “comfortable” increasing the number of eligible Marylanders.
That concerned some state senators, who are holding weekly meetings to judge Schrader’s performance on the vaccination campaign before deciding whether to confirm him as the state’s permanent health secretary.
“We’ve basically broken the dam open for a huge amount of demand for the vaccine without supply,” said Sen. Clarence Lam, a Democrat and physician representing Howard and Baltimore counties.
At least 70% to 85% of the public will need to be vaccinated to quash the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, during a virtual event hosted by Texas-based Bishop T.D. Jakes. At that point, the country will likely have reached broad herd immunity, leaving the virus without enough viable hosts.
Fauci said he expects most people who want to get inoculated to have access to appointments as early as April, and that a return to some form of normality could come by this summer depending on how many get vaccinated. Until then, he said, the country must increase transparency in the process, temper expectations and ensure that vulnerable and low-income communities have equitable access to appointments.
“This was a brand-new process and an unprecedented challenge, so there’s going to be bumps in the road and hiccups,” Fauci said during the virtual event, streamed Monday on YouTube. “There’s no excuses for [the slow rollout], and we have to do better. You always have to admit that.”
The state already is looking ahead to getting more vaccines, whether that’s from additional production of the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech shots or new vaccines winning approval. Maryland also is expanding the locations receiving the vaccines, including a limited number of Giant and Walmart pharmacies. Some health centers that serve low-income populations are starting to get vaccines, and the Kaiser Permanente health care system also will get doses.
”We want to have those channels open, which include pharmacies and other provider channels, because we won’t be able to do this through the local health departments. It will be too big a task,” Schrader said.
State health officials are monitoring how efficiently hospitals, health departments and other providers are administering the doses. Those that lag and have doses sitting unused may see their allotment reduced in future weeks, Schrader said.
Hogan is scheduled to give an update on vaccinations during a news conference Tuesday afternoon at the State House.