As a new, more transmissible strain of COVID-19 sweeps the country, Maryland may have positioned itself to fend off the worst of it.
The Delta variant now accounts for about 25% of cases nationally and has been found in the state.
But months before it was detected here, state officials took a step that has boosted the share of Marylanders who are vaccinated. They created a task force in early March to vaccinate pockets of minorities who initially didn’t want or couldn’t get vaccines.
As the vaccine began to roll out early this year, white Marylanders were getting several times the number of shots reaching minorities. State officials were under pressure to close the gaps with Black and Hispanic residents, who were getting infected at higher rates and who continue to make up disproportionate numbers of serious cases.
An analysis of state data by The Baltimore Sun shows the state’s push, coupled with other vaccination efforts, raised the proportion protected several percentage points. The state now has vaccinated about 75% of adults with at least one dose, outpacing the national average of almost 67%.
The Sun analysis found almost 278,500 more eligible Black residents were vaccinated than if the initial disparity from March had persisted. About 180,000 more eligible Hispanic people got a shot.
All residents 12 and older qualify for vaccination.
State officials say all vaccination efforts generally have contributed to significantly lower numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths since a winter peak.
“Our case numbers have gone down, in large part because so many people got vaccinated,” said Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s deputy health secretary of public health services.
“But it’s not time to let our guard down,” she said. “The variants we’re paying attention to, they are more transmissible than the others before them. The Delta variant is really impacting the United Kingdom and other countries. We think the vaccine can disrupt transmission in communities here.”
Much of the vaccination efforts, such as the growing network of pharmacies and doctors’ offices and mass vaccination sites, have not singled out minority groups. But hospitals, health departments and others, including the task force, joined in targeting vulnerable groups. The task force has directly undertaken 752 “missions” and administered 135,000 vaccine doses.
Chan said now that mass vaccination sites are closing, there will be more of an emphasis on the smaller, targeted clinics. They typically vaccinate 15 to 100 people at a time in churches, apartment buildings, community centers and other settings, rather than hundreds or even thousands.
They will add up and offer more protection against the Delta variant, which public health officials believe will cause another wave of infections in late summer or fall.
“The bottom line is right now all three vaccines appear to be highly protective against severe disease, which is our main concern,” said Dr. Bill Moss, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“They work against all the variants of concern, against the Delta variant,” said Moss during a recent news briefing held by Hopkins. “It’s important that everyone eligible gets vaccinated. We’re already seeing outbreaks in unvaccinated populations in the United States.”
Moss said cases are likely to rise more in states expected to miss President Joe Biden’s goal of 70% of adults receiving at least one of two shots required by the most-used vaccines by July 4. Alabama and Missouri already are logging increased infections.
The vaccinations rate among seniors in Maryland remains the highest by far at 88% with at least one dose on board, state data shows. That high rate was achieved in large part because the elderly are the most at risk from the disease and therefore became eligible for and targeted for shots first.
Those aged 12 to 17, the age group that most recently became eligible for vaccine, remain at the bottom. About half have received at least one shot.
As vaccination demand lags nationally, officials say efforts will need to continue to target minority populations, particularly because they skew younger. To that end, President Joe Biden announced new measures Tuesday, including efforts to go door-to-door, to raise vaccinations among minorities.
Some states have farther to go, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis released at the end of June. Also, the states with lowest rates of minority vaccinations aren’t doing a particularly good job of vaccinating anyone, the group found.
Alabama, for example, vaccinated similar proportions of white and Black residents, 32% and 30% respectively. Idaho, with the lowest vaccination rate for white residents at 28%, vaccinated 30% of its Black residents.
Maryland vaccinated 59% of white residents of all ages and 47% of Black and 48% of Hispanic residents, Kaiser found. That exceeded the average of 40 states that reported racial and ethnic rates, which was 46% of white people and 33% of Black and 38% of Hispanic people.
But Maryland could benefit significantly from closing the equity gap entirely, The Sun analysis found.
Black residents make up almost 31% of Maryland’s residents age 12 and older. If they had gotten the same proportion of vaccinations, another 264,000 people would be protected. If Hispanic people, who make up 9.4% of the population, had another 9,000 people would be vaccinated. That would also push up the percentage vaccinated by at least 4 more points.
Boosting vaccinations by even half that amount could be significant, said Rupali J. Limaye, director of behavioral and implementation science at the Hopkins’ International Vaccine Access Center, during a recent news conference.
“An increase of 1% to 2% in coverage could really limit outbreaks,” she said.
She said access continues to be an issue, but so does hesitancy, and a portion of those people can be persuaded with facts that counter what they’ve heard, particularly false and misleading information.
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At a recent vaccination event, Jessica Long, a 34-year-old Black woman from Baltimore, said she was skeptical about COVID vaccines because she felt the new mRNA technology used by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna was rushed. She was also troubled by news of rare complications, including blood clots in people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“I had to do a lot of my own research to find out that the mRNA vaccines were in the making for 10 years for things like HIV,” she said. “People in the African American community don’t trust the medical community, and I feel like the government could have done a lot more to show us the research.”
Long said she eventually convinced herself to be vaccinated because she believes she had COVID-19 early in the pandemic before widespread testing and didn’t want another infection. She also figured her employer would eventually require it.
But not everyone will go to those lengths to learn about vaccines.
“Until now, getting shots in arms had been easy, but now we’re at the point where it takes some persuasion,” Limaye said.
“We need to meet people where they are,” Limaye said. “That means having the right messages and the right messengers.”
Baltimore Sun data journalist Steve Earley contributed to this article.