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Under pressure to improve equity, Maryland’s mass COVID vaccine sites to set aside appointments for nearby residents

Under pressure to improve striking disparities in Maryland’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Monday that the state-run mass vaccination sites will set aside thousands of appointments per week for residents of Baltimore City, Prince George’s County and other jurisdictions where the clinics are located.

The M&T Bank Stadium site in Baltimore, the Regency Furniture Stadium site in Waldorf, the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center in Salisbury, the Hagerstown Premium Outlets site in Western Maryland, and Six Flags America in Bowie will each set aside 2,100 “priority appointments per week,” the governor said in a news release.

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Priority appointments for those sites can be booked by using both state and local online pre-registration lists or by calling the state’s call center: 1-855-MD-GOVAX (1-855-634-6829).

“As we continue to ramp up the capacity of our mass vaccination sites, we are also focusing on ensuring equitable access for Marylanders,” Hogan said in a statement. “Using both our call center and text-based outreach, we are working with local health departments to get shots into arms of our most vulnerable populations.”

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The release did not say what percentage of each site’s total appointments the 2,100-per-week represents.

But Monday’s announcement followed a significant expansion in the number of appointments at M&T Bank Stadium. The site last week began offering more than 4,000 per day, said Michael Schwartzberg, a spokesman for the University of Maryland Medical System, which operates the clinic for the state.

At that rate, the 2,100 appointments set aside for city residents at the stadium represent roughly half of one day’s appointments each week — far less than the 50% of total appointments for city residents that Democratic Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott had requested.

The 2,100 appointments a week represent “minimum allotments,” and the numbers could increase “as supply allows,” the governor’s announcement said.

“Nothing is sufficient until everyone who wants access to a vaccine can get one,” said Michael Ricci, a spokesman for the Republican governor, in an email. “These vaccines remain a scarce resource, and we have to do all we can to be both efficient and equitable.”

Scott said he was grateful Hogan “answered our call to prioritize public health in Baltimore,” but he called Monday’s announcement “just a start.”

“To truly promote equity, we must increase the number of priority appointments at the mass vaccination site at M&T Bank Stadium and eliminate barriers to access,” the mayor said in a statement. “I would be open to working with the Governor on this effort.”

People ride up an escalator on the north side of the football stadium while others below check in for their first COVID-19 Pfizer vaccination at M&T Bank Stadium Mass Vaccination Site.
People ride up an escalator on the north side of the football stadium while others below check in for their first COVID-19 Pfizer vaccination at M&T Bank Stadium Mass Vaccination Site. (Karl Merton Ferron)

Hogan drew outrage in Baltimore last month by saying the city had received more vaccines than it was “entitled to,” despite most going to hospitals and first responders; the city ranking third from last among the state’s 24 jurisdictions for the percentage of its population inoculated; and white people significantly outpacing Black residents in coronavirus vaccine doses received.

The governor’s Vaccine Equity Task Force, which is pushing to address such issues, has sought out religious leaders and other community partners to help get vaccines out into hard-hit neighborhoods.

Designating more mass vaccination site appointments for nearby residents is the latest push in that effort.

M&T Bank Stadium will join the equity efforts of the city’s other state-run mass vaccination site, the Baltimore Convention Center, which the governor announced on March 1 would give “as many appointments as possible” to people from the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of the city.

The Regency Furniture Stadium appointments will be distributed to residents of Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties.

The Wicomico Youth and Civic Center site, which opens Thursday, will set aside the local appointments for residents of Wicomico, Worcester, Somerset and Dorchester counties.

The Hagerstown Premium Outlets site, which opens March 25, will distribute the local appointments to residents of Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties.

The priority appointments at Six Flags in Prince George’s County, the second-most populous and hardest-hit county of the state during the pandemic, were announced last week through a partnership with the county. They will be set aside for county residents.

While Six Flags received the bulk of the state’s initial mass-vaccination site doses, most of the first appointments at the drive-through site were snapped up by residents of more affluent Montgomery and Howard counties.

The state remains in Phase 1 of its vaccine rollout, which is supposed to limit vaccines to those eligible, including people older than 65, health care workers, first responders and a number of other priority groups. The state has acknowledged that a lack of eligibility checks at mass vaccination sites has been a “double-edged sword,” a possible benefit for some of the state’s most at-risk residents, but also for those exploiting the system.

Maryland residents eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine can now preregister for an immunization appointment at one of the state’s five regional mass vaccination sites by putting their information into one online portal.

In an effort to reach older Marylanders, many of whom likely face difficulty signing up for online appointments, the Maryland Department of Health is distributing vaccines to 17 primary-care practices to provide to their patients. Each will receive 100 Moderna doses, the health department said.

The move will serve as a pilot program, which the state plans to evaluate and expand “to include dozens more primary care practices in every corner of Maryland,” the health department said.

It augments the state’s work with pharmacies, grocery stores and other entities to expand access to people with disabilities and those in long-term care facilities not covered by federal partnerships.

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“We want to meet vulnerable Marylanders where they are,” the state’s acting Health Secretary Dennis Schrader said in a statement. “As our supply of vaccines provided by the federal government begins to increase, we will find the most efficient ways to ensure that they reach the arms of those who need them the most.”

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