Maryland’s coronavirus vaccination rates, which lagged behind those in most states at the start, now ranks among the nation’s best.
At the end of January, about a month into the vaccination effort, Maryland ranked 47th of 50 states and Washington, D.C., for the percentage of its population that had been fully vaccinated, less than 1% of its roughly 6 million residents, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. By March 3, it improved to 18th, with 8.5% of its people completely immunized.
As of Thursday morning, Maryland ranked ninth. The federal data showed 44.2% of Marylanders had been completely immunized by finishing either Pfizer/BioNTech’s or Moderna’s two-dose course, or receiving Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine.
Maryland officials say the improvement reflects a strategy to develop an infrastructure of various vaccinators, including mass vaccination sites and small, targeted clinics, paying dividends. Others contend a population eager to get vaccinated is to thank and that the improvements happened despite early missteps in the vaccination strategy, not because it worked well.
Mike Ricci, spokesman for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, said things are right on schedule now that the state isn’t as constrained by vaccine supply.
“We had a plan and we followed through on it,” Ricci said in an email. “We maximized points of distribution, including pharmacies and primary care doctors, while also launching a series of targeted campaigns — equity clinics, manufacturing clinics, continuation of nursing home clinics, homebound seniors, college students.”
But Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said Maryland struggled during the first phase of the campaign, which required distributing doses quickly and “in an organized way when there’s more demand than there are vaccines.” For example, he cited the complex maze of online sign-ups created by the range of vaccinators the state chose to rely upon from the start.
“Maryland stumbled out of the gate,” Sharfstein said. “It was very hard for people to sign up. There was a lot of confusion about how to get the vaccine.”
Democratic state Sen. Clarence Lam, a physician who sits on the Senate Vaccine Oversight Workgroup, agreed.
Lam said Maryland erred early by sending doses to a range of providers when supply was scarce and relying on confusing online sign-ups. He said the state took steps to rectify those mistakes with mass vaccination sites and, eventually, a centralized system to help people register for their shots.
By then, the state was entering a new phase of the vaccine rollout, said Sharfstein, who served as Maryland’s health secretary. Phase two, he said, involves sustaining demand once the supply is plentiful. That plays to Maryland’s strengths because the state has a history of support for vaccinations and high rates of child vaccinations, he said.
Lam credited Marylanders’ willingness to get vaccinated.
“The efforts of the state were made easier by the fact that we have a very educated and accepting population when it comes to public health guidance,” he said.
Some thought West Virginia’s speed administering vaccines early on made Maryland’s efforts look bad. In late January, Maryland’s neighbor to the west ranked first for the percentage of its population that was fully vaccinated. By March, West Virginia was third for the share of its people fully vaccinated.
Now, West Virginia makes Maryland’s vaccination campaign look good, ranking 39th for the percentage of its people fully vaccinated, with 33.1%.
A New York Times analysis found residents of states and counties that supported former President Donald Trump, a Republican, were more hesitant about the vaccine. Every state — and Washington — which had seen a greater share of its population fully vaccinated than Maryland as of Tuesday went to President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in the 2020 general election.
Sharfstein credited Maryland’s leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, for consistently touting the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations. Even U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, the lone Republican in the congressional delegation and a Trump loyalist, has encouraged and administered vaccines. (Harris is a doctor by trade.)
“From every angle, people are hearing about the importance of the vaccine,” Sharfstein said. “And that’s making a difference.”
More than 5.7 million vaccine doses had been administered in Maryland as of Wednesday. The state has reported an average of more than 49,000 immunizations daily over the past week, as several key indicators of coronavirus spread continue to decline. To incentivize more residents to get vaccinated, Hogan announced Thursday that there would be a lottery with $2 million in cash prizes for vaccinated people.
But racial disparities among vaccinations persist, though the gap has narrowed since the early days of the vaccine rollout.
About 2.6 times more white Marylanders than Black residents have been fully vaccinated, a gap that should be 1.9 times based on population with those demographic groups accounting for roughly 58.5% and 31% of the population respectively, according to state health department data. And Latino people account for approximately 6.9% of the people who’ve been fully vaccinated and whose ethnicity was known, but make up 10.6% of residents, the data shows.
Furthermore, Howard County, a wealthy, populous locality in the Baltimore metro area, has fully vaccinated more than 50% of its people; Somerset County, a poor, sparsely populated jurisdiction on the Eastern Shore has completely immunized about 28% of its people, according to the health department.
And Baltimore City, where the population is 62.7% Black, is marginally better despite an extensive campaign, having fully vaccinated 34.5% of its population.
“I don’t think Maryland did a very good job of equity in the first wave and we have some catching up to do,” said Sharfstein, a former Baltimore City health commissioner.
Closing the gaps, he added, requires “a real stamina” from public health officials.
But Ricci, Hogan’s spokesman, defended the state’s performance with minority groups, pointing to a Bloomberg analysis showing Maryland was among eight states that have vaccinated at least a third of its Black and Hispanic populations. Among 45 states, Washington and two cities, Maryland ranked fifth for vaccinating those minority groups. By comparison, West Virginia was 21st for vaccinating Black residents, while the percentage of Hispanic residents that had been vaccinated is unclear.
Lam said the state made strides to address the root cause of the disparity after he and other Democratic lawmakers, including Sens. Mary Washington of Baltimore and James C. Rosapepe of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, pressed state health officials to re-strategize.
“I think they’re getting there,” he said. “They’re recognizing, after feedback from us and others, that access is a real issue — you can’t just blame it on hesitancy.”
Looking forward, Sharfstein said, the effort will transition from mass vaccination sites where thousands of mobile people are immunized every day to targeted outreach efforts that vaccinate a handful of hard-to-reach residents. He said the state cannot let up.
“Just because we don’t have people banging on the windows of pharmacies doesn’t mean we should lose our stamina for the vaccine effort,” he said.