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Baltimore health officials blame overbooking as people are turned away from city’s vaccination site

People with appointments for coronavirus vaccinations were turned away Tuesday when they arrived at Baltimore’s vaccination center, a situation city health officials attributed to overbooking by the state’s vaccination scheduling system.

Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, Baltimore’s health commissioner, said that due to a limited supply of vaccines, the city has moved to distributing only second doses of the two-shot vaccine for at least the remainder of February.

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However, the scheduling system, known as PrepMod, continued to allow people to book appointments for first doses using links that were shared via email or social media, she said. As many as 25% of the city’s appointments scheduled for this month were mistakenly filled by people attempting to get a first dose, Dzirasa said.

The result was confusion at the Baltimore City Community College campus in West Baltimore, the city’s vaccination site.

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Democratic City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, a Democrat representing District 5 in West and North Baltimore, said he spoke to around 30 people who were turned away. Schleifer said he believed at least 100 people were asked to leave without getting a shot. Dzirasa said she did not have an exact figure.

“People are furious,” Schleifer said. “I had people more upset than I’ve ever seen people upset. I think I’ve probably been cursed at a dozen times today.”

Late last week, health department officials said they were canceling some vaccination appointments scheduled for this week due to an overbooking of “hundreds” of first-dose appointments. People whose appointments were canceled were to receive an email from the city health department notifying them and providing instructions to sign up for the vaccine with an area health care provider.

Dzirasa said those emails were sent. But the state’s PrepMod system also automatically reminds people who have scheduled a vaccine appointment. City health officials believe people still received those messages, leading to the confusion, she said.

Charles Gischlar, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health, said he was aware of other situations where registration links for vaccine appointments were shared with unintended recipients.

“Citizens must understand that the unauthorized use of a private registration link can take an appointment slot away from an individual in a priority group,” he said.

Dzirasa asked people who have booked appointments not to share links with others, but noted there is no way to prevent that from happening. Also, the PrepMod system does not cap the number of appointments, she said.

“The biggest challenge is eligibility does not equal improved vaccine access,” Dzirasa said. “As we expand eligibility, the impression is there’s more vaccines available.”

Baltimore is administering 500 doses per day of the vaccine. That pace has not increased since the city moved its mass vaccination site in January from its initial location in South Baltimore to the community college.

Schleifer said he spoke to teachers, seniors and health care workers who were rejected at the site. An elderly couple were sobbing after digging their car out of the snow to make the trip to the vaccination site only to be turned away, he said.

Some people were upset that health department staff seemed to blame them for the error, he said.

“Once somebody does get on a schedule, you can’t just cancel on them,” Schleifer said, arguing that the health department should reschedule those turned away for new appointments.

After hearing the health department’s explanation for the cancellations, Schleifer said he asked people who were turned away how they scheduled their appointment. He was repeatedly told the appointments were made via the state’s scheduling system, not via links shared by other people, he said.

“If that is physically possible, we have a bigger problem,” he said.

The councilman requested an accounting of what vaccines the city has on hand, as well as a day-by-day breakdown of how many people have been vaccinated.

Council President Nick Mosby said the situation Tuesday raises additional concerns about the equity of the vaccine distribution across Maryland. Mosby, a Democrat, sent a letter Tuesday to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, calling on him to present a plan to more equitably vaccinate the state’s Black and brown residents, who have been more susceptible to coronavirus.

“This is coming up again,” he said. “When the state of Maryland does anything without data, underrepresented communities are always going to get the short end of the stick.”

Last week, Hogan was asked during an appearance in Baltimore whether he would consider allocating more doses of the vaccine to areas of the state with minority populations. Hogan said no.

“The state is dividing it to each jurisdiction on a pro rata basis,” he said. “This is not an issue of not enough supply in those areas. It’s about convincing people to take it.”

Mosby called Hogan’s statement “ill-informed.” The state should be looking at vaccine distribution not through a per capita lens, but through a lens of “humanity,” he said.

“We should take it to a place where we are triaging our most vulnerable and critical cases. We should be saving those lives,” he said.

Hogan’s spokesman Mike Ricci said Maryland is not the only state using PrepMod. State officials are working with county health departments to address some of the fixes they’ve identified, Ricci said.

“Beyond that, we are already doing all of the things Mr. Mosby talks about here,” Ricci said of Mosby’s letter, highlighting the state’s creation of a vaccine equity task force. “As the governor announced last week with the mayor at Camden Yards, we are launching an extensive public outreach and equity campaign, and we welcome Mr. Mosby’s participation.”

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