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Maryland health secretary says next phase of COVID vaccination will be harder

Maryland’s health secretary warned Monday that the next phase of the state’s coronavirus vaccination campaign will be costly and time-consuming, as officials work to reach people who have not yet agreed to get the shot.

“We’re nowhere near done and we’re going to remain focused on our ground game the next several months,” Secretary Dennis Schrader told state senators during a video briefing.

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Schrader said his team is monitoring the use of the state-run mass vaccination clinics, which operate in stadiums and other large venues. Once there’s a significant drop in the number of people going to those sites, the state will start shutting them down and moving the money and staff to boosting targeted efforts such as pop-up clinics and mobile vaccination vehicles.

Through Monday, 67% of Maryland adults have received either the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine or the first dose of the two-dose regimens from Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has a goal of getting 70% of Maryland adults at least one shot by Memorial Day on May 31.

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With continued steady vaccination rates, the state is likely to get there, Schrader said. But getting past 70% is going to be tougher.

“We’re going to get smaller numbers on a daily basis. It could take us another six months, quite frankly,” Schrader said. “It took six months to get well over 3 million. It will probably take us another six months to get the next 1 million.”

That’s where the state’s “ground game” will come in.

“This is going to be really hard work and it’s going to take us a little longer,” Schrader said. “It’s going to be a lot harder and probably more expensive, but we’re not going to give up.”

Already, the state is partnering with workplaces and churches, community groups and local leaders to set up vaccination clinics. Mobile clinics are rolling. Those efforts will be increased, with more vans and pop-up events.

Many of those events have been set up through the state’s Vaccine Equity Task Force, which will continue to find partnerships.

The state also is looking at ways to identify people who are not vaccinated and do direct outreach to educate them about the benefits of the shots and help them find an appointment. For example, Schrader said, state officials can take a database of people who are part of the Medicaid system and compare that to state immunization data. That will give them a list of people not yet vaccinated who can be contacted.

The state already has worked with the Kaiser Permanente health system to reach out to its members. And the immigrants advocacy group CASA has been “enormously helpful” in contacting its members and setting up clinics.

“What I’m looking for, all around the state, is people who have lists that we can call,” Schrader said.

For now, hurdles such as lack of transportation, difficulty navigating the internet and reluctance to trust the government continue to be barriers, Schrader said.

Schrader highlighted the work of the equity task force for working to reaching a diverse population. But the state’s vaccination rates among people of color remain stubbornly low, Schrader acknowledged in response to questioning from Sen. Clarence Lam, a Democrat representing Howard and Baltimore counties who is also a physician.

Through Monday, in vaccinations where racial and ethnic data is recorded, 7% of shots have gone to Hispanic and Latino Marylanders, who make up 11% of the state’s population. Another 23% of shots have been administered to Black Marylanders, who make up 31% of the population.

“We’re not going to give up until we get everybody,” Schrader said.

Sen. Ron Young, a Frederick County Democrat, wondered if Maryland could consider some of the vaccination incentives offered in other states.

Already the governor has offered $100 to state employees who get vaccinated and he’s encouraged other employers to do the same. Meanwhile, West Virginia is giving out savings bonds to certain people who get vaccinated, while Ohio is drawing attention for putting the names of vaccinated people into weekly lotteries with prizes including $1 million and four-year scholarships to state universities.

Schrader asked Young what he thought of the lottery idea.

“I kind of like it,” Young said.

Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, offered his opinion: “Whatever it takes is my perspective.”

Schrader said he’d think about it.

“We’re looking at any and all opportunities,” he said.

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