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‘A soft launch’: Maryland’s mass COVID vaccine sites offer just a few hundred doses by appointment on first day

Ria Peralta of the University of Maryland Medical System, is the project manager for the vaccine site at the convention center, talks about the vaccine program.

Maryland eventually hopes to distribute thousands of COVID-19 vaccines per day across half a dozen mass vaccination sites, inoculating most residents and finally pushing the state past the pandemic that has killed more than 7,000 people here in the past year.

But the state’s first two mass vaccination sites, which debuted Friday, were “mass” in name only for now, offering just a few hundred doses — and only by appointment to health care workers, seniors, some essential workers and others in designated groups.

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The vaccination site at Six Flags America, which Gov. Larry Hogan and Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks toured in the morning, planned to administer just 250 doses Friday, before potentially ramping up to as many as 6,000 doses a day, once supply improves.

“This is like a soft launch of a restaurant, where you just have a few people in to test it out,” the Republican governor said during the visit.

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The state’s other vaccination site, at the Baltimore Convention Center, expected to offer even fewer, 100 doses, on Friday, said Ria Peralta, the site’s project manager for the University of Maryland Medical System.

“We’re all just anxious to get this show on the road and get to vaccinate everyone,” Peralta said. “It’s a long day, but a long, exciting day, I would say.”

Cars lined up at a mass vaccine site that opened for Maryland residents in the parking lot of Six Flags on February 5, 2021 in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. The Pfizer vaccine was made available to people who qualified for one of the 10,000 appointment slots made available for the site in the coming days.
Cars lined up at a mass vaccine site that opened for Maryland residents in the parking lot of Six Flags on February 5, 2021 in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. The Pfizer vaccine was made available to people who qualified for one of the 10,000 appointment slots made available for the site in the coming days. (Michael Robinson Chavez / HANDOUT)

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott rolled out an online coronavirus vaccination dashboard Friday to help city residents track the progress of the vaccination effort. He has asked Hogan to reserve a greater number of appointments for those who live and work in the city.

“The numbers on this dashboard frustrate me,” Scott said. “They make me angry, particularly when you look at who has received the first dose of the vaccine in our city, broken down by age, race, gender and ethnicity.”

After three weeks of looking unsuccessfully for an open appointment in Baltimore, Baltimore County and Montgomery County, Sean Leavy, a teacher who lives in Old Goucher, got his first dose Friday at the Convention Center.

The process of actually getting the shot was far easier than securing a slot, said Leavy, who teaches eighth grade math in Montgomery County and courses at Stevenson University in Baltimore County.

“I was able to walk right in,” the 29-year-old said. “It’s at least nice to see the vaccination part of it is organized.”

Staff at the Convention Center site spent weeks setting up 48 vaccination stations and an observation area inside, Peralta said.

Friday’s 100 appointments at the Convention Center were scheduled in a two-hour window, but the hours will expand to 8 a.m. to noon beginning Monday. Testing, which was previously offered all day, will be limited to 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Ophelia Leverett and Dianne Clayborne said they hardly felt the prick of the needle.

Leverett, 77, who recently completed lung cancer treatment, wore a mask with a picture of her family on it to the Convention Center for her first vaccine appointment Friday. Her friend Clayborne, a 78-year-old Social Security Administration retiree, also got her first dose.

The two Northwest Baltimore women will return Feb. 26 — the Friday of Leverett’s birthday week — for their second doses. Leverett looks forward to an eventual return to shopping, the library and welcoming friends and family back inside her home.

“I’m tired of this mask business, and not being able to go anywhere or do anything,” she said.

Some of the 250 Maryland residents who lined up in their cars for vaccines at Six Flags Friday were quick on the draw. They had snapped up one of the 10,000 appointments made available for the first days at the site, which filled up within 20 minutes of being posted online Friday morning.

As the state adds more mass vaccination sites, it is upgrading its vaccine website, said Maryland Health Department spokeswoman Maureen Regan. That’s expected to improve the current, disorganized process of people sharing links and signing up for appointments wherever they can find them.

Hogan addressed the struggle of opening mass vaccination sites without a critical mass of vaccine doses from the federal government.

”We only have about 5% or 6% of the doses we need. We need another 10 million doses,” Hogan said. “We’re building an infrastructure machine that can do 50,000 or more a day, [so] we can vaccinate everyone in the state. ... But we can’t do anything without the vaccines. We don’t make the vaccines.”

Joanne Kelly thought her daughter had successfully made her an appointment for the Convention Center site. But the 72-year-old was among those turned away without a shot Friday afternoon.

Those without appointments at the Baltimore Convention Center Friday were directed to the field hospital’s Vaccine Request Form. The form does not allow you to create an appointment, but rather notifies you when you become eligible and sends instructions for creating one.

“I was a little disappointed,” said Kelly, a retired state rehabilitation technician. “I wasn’t on the list, thinking that I was. But I’m also a little relieved that I have more time to wait, because I was hesitant about whether I really wanted to get the shot.”

Alsobrooks, the Democratic Prince George’s County executive, said she wants to ensure vaccines are distributed equitably and wants to clear up any misinformation about the risks.

”Everyone deserves the vaccine, whether they are concerned about it or no,” Alsobrooks said. “We have an obligation to provide them the education and the information they need so they can feel comfortable.”

Staff at the vaccination sites appreciate the patience of those waiting for vaccines, Peralta said.

“We want to have everyone who wants a vaccine to be vaccinated,” she said. “We have to do this slowly and the right way.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.

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