Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan continued to lament a shortage of COVID-19 vaccine doses provided by the federal government as he announced plans Thursday to launch another mass clinic and defended the state’s approach to distribution.
The Republican governor announced a number of measures in response to what he called an improved landscape — lower numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, and lower positivity rates. But Hogan also warned the state is not out of the woods and emphasized the need to ensure vaccine distribution is equitable.
Some county health officials have noted a dip recently in their vaccine allotments and say the fluctuations come at the expense of the state’s most vulnerable populations. State health officials notified counties this week that the state can distribute doses based on how well the counties “comply” with state directives and how efficiently they can get shot into arms.
As the list of eligible groups in the state has grown, many Marylanders have reported difficulties obtaining vaccine appointments. People complain of needing to scour websites for hospitals, pharmacies and local health departments seeking appointments, voicing frustration about a convoluted booking process and comparing it to a lottery or scavenger hunt.
Last week, Maryland Congressional leaders called on Hogan to establish a “one-stop website” and call center for vaccine appointment booking.
Hogan said he has directed state health officials to provide county leaders with four-week projections for vaccine allocations for their local health department clinics. The federal government provides similar two-week projections to states. But he dismissed the idea of routing vaccine doses solely to county health departments as “absurd,” saying it “is simply not a realistic way to vaccinate millions of people across the state.”
Ed Singer, president of the Maryland Association of County Health Officers, said he was “discouraged” by the governor’s comments.
The Carroll County health officer said counties are looking to prioritize vulnerable people like those who don’t have access to computers or the Internet or people who can’t get to a vaccination site while there is still a limited supply of doses.
“This is where the friction point is,” Singer said. “When we get to phase 2 and 3 and we’re trying to vaccinate the entire state, health departments don’t want to do that on our own.”
Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa echoed Singer’s concerns.
“We’ve requested the State provide information on where doses are going outside of local health departments, not because we want a monopoly, but because we want to understand where there are gaps in the vaccination rollout, so that local health departments can work to fill those gaps,” Dzirasa said.
As for more notice on vaccine allocations, Singer said that would be welcomed, but he doubted the state could actually do it.
“I still don’t know how much I’m getting next week,” he said. “It makes it a tough balancing act for us.”
Racial disparities in the early vaccine rollout also have drawn concern. As of Thursday, about 15% of those who had received vaccines in Maryland were Black, and about 3.7% were Hispanic or Latinx. Those groups make up 31% and 11% of the state population, respectively.
Hogan announced the Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force will ask each county to appoint an equity officer to serve as a liaison to the state in order to closely coordinate equity initiatives. The task force will work with equity officers and local organizations to stand up mobile clinics to reach critical populations, the governor said.
Maryland National Guard Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead also joined the news conference to share how she convinced her mother to take the vaccine after some reluctance. Birckhead’s mom is now “waiting her turn” for an appointment.
So far, the state has vaccinated more than half a million people with at least one of the two required doses, or 9.7% of the state population. Nearly 200,000 people in Maryland have both doses, or 3.3% of the state population of about 6 million. Maryland has administered 11,929 vaccines per 100,000 people, ranking it in the bottom third of states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The governor plans to meet Friday with President Joe Biden at the Oval Office along with several unnamed governors and mayors. He said he intends to press the president on the pace of vaccine distribution.
“We need more damn vaccines,” said Hogan, punctuating each word. “We have no control whatsoever over this supply problem.”
The state’s two open mass vaccination sites, at the Baltimore Convention Center and Six Flags in Prince George’s County, are on track to vaccinate more than 15,000 people in their first week, which is 100% of their allocation. Both sites are capable of handling “thousands more,” but the state doesn’t have the doses yet, Hogan said.
The state will open another mass vaccination site in Baltimore at the M&T Bank Stadium on Feb. 25, partnering with the University of Maryland Medical System. Appointments will become available next week, Hogan said. Additional vaccination sites in Southern and Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore are being finalized, with plans to open in March.
Hogan also announced that the Maryland Department of Health will begin easing visitor restrictions at Maryland hospitals and nursing homes.
Hospitals will set their own visitation policies, which must comply with CDC guidelines. Indoor visitation at nursing homes will resume March 1, provided facilities do not have active cases and follow testing protocols, the governor said.
Bob Atlas, president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association, noted that the state’s restrictions on hospital visitation had a number of exceptions already, such as end-of-life visits or attending to children or women giving birth.
Joe DeMattos, president of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland, said nursing home visits can be done safely and will resume.
“Visitation and family engagement are so very important, there will likely still be rules and protocols for safely,” he said.
State officials also are moving forward with plans to provide 1 million free COVID-19 tests for public and private schools as many prepare to reopen for some students in March.
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State health and education officials are launching the testing program for schools that are open or plan to reopen for in-person learning for the remainder of the school year. The state will provide testing supplies proportional to the number of students and staff returning, Hogan said during a news conference Thursday.
Program leaders anticipate a centralized distribution of 500,000 to 750,000 tests for public schools at the system level and among non-public clusters such as the Archdiocese of Baltimore. An additional 200,000 to 360,000 tests will be distributed from a laboratory under current state contract, said Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan’s administration.
The announcement comes as the Republican governor has urged school systems to bring students back for in-person instruction next month — even as many Marylanders report intense demand for vaccinations and too few appointments.
Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s acting deputy secretary for public health, has said vaccination shouldn’t be a factor in school reopening decisions. Schools may opt-in to the voluntary COVID-19 testing program.
Hogan said 22 of 24 county school systems already have begun in-person instruction or have agreed to do so by March 1. Prince George’s and Charles county school systems have not submitted such plans, which are due Friday to the Maryland State Department of Education, Ricci said.
There are approximately 1.1 million students and staff in almost 3,000 public and non-public schools.
Baltimore Sun reporter Christine Condon contributed to this article.