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Community leaders set up unofficial vaccine registration hotline for older adults in Baltimore

A small group of Baltimore community leaders have set up their own hotline aimed at helping older city residents make appointments to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

The new phone line, 410-929-6024, was announced at a news conference at West Baltimore’s Simmons Memorial Baptist Church on Sunday hosted by former Baltimore City mayoral candidate and Maryland deputy attorney general Thiru Vignarajah and longtime Baltimore civil rights leader Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham, among others.

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The group became frustrated by stories they heard from vulnerable seniors, particularly Black Baltimoreans, who were eager to get their shots, but struggled to find an appointment nearby, Vignarajah said Sunday.

“We will get on the internet with you, and we will start filling out some of the forms,” Vignarajah said. “We’re going to do what so many of us have done for our parents and grandparents to make sure they got the vaccine.”

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The hotline will accept messages around the clock, and volunteers aim to call back any Baltimore resident over 80 years old within 12 hours. The volunteers can also be reached via email at unofficial.vaccine.hotline@gmail.com.

The effort also grew out of concern about a racial disparity in the vaccinations given out so far, Vignarajah said.

As of Friday, Black people had received 35.7% of vaccine first doses in the city for which race data was recorded. More than 60% of the city’s population is Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. White people received 49.3% of the shots with corresponding race data, but are 30.5% of the city’s population.

Eligible Marylanders have long complained about difficulties finding vaccination appointments. Many have recounted searching a sometimes confusing tangle of websites in hopes of booking appointments, including sites for pharmacies, hospitals, mass vaccination sites and local health departments. Marylanders 65 and over, in particular, have had difficulties booking time slots, and have sometimes turned to family members and friends for help.

The newly announced hotline is unofficial, and has been organized by private citizen volunteers. The state health department has its own phone line meant to help seniors or others without reliable internet access register for appointments at Maryland’s mass vaccination sites at the Baltimore Convention Center and Six Flags America (1-855-634-6829). The city has one too, specifically for vaccination clinics in Baltimore (410-396-2273).

Vignarajah said the hotline isn’t meant to duplicate those efforts, but rather complement them, and help Baltimoreans get their names on all the lists that could help them get vaccinated — whether it be Giant, Rite Aid, Walmart or LifeBridge Health.

The hotline will be manned by volunteers, who will help with booking appointments, but also help arrange transportation to vaccine clinics if need be, Vignarajah said. They won’t store any of the personal information used to fill out online forms, Vignarajah said, except contact information.

From the state’s perspective, the hotline could be helpful, wrote Charlie Gischlar, spokesman for the state health department, in a statement.

From left, Baltimore civil rights advocate Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, former Baltimore City mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah, city pastor Duane Simmons and University of Maryland Medical Center physician Dr. Daniel Howard are among those who have helped create an "unofficial" vaccine registration hotline for Baltimore seniors. They announced the effort Sunday at Simmons Memorial Baptist Church in West Baltimore.
From left, Baltimore civil rights advocate Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, former Baltimore City mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah, city pastor Duane Simmons and University of Maryland Medical Center physician Dr. Daniel Howard are among those who have helped create an "unofficial" vaccine registration hotline for Baltimore seniors. They announced the effort Sunday at Simmons Memorial Baptist Church in West Baltimore. (Christine Condon/Baltimore Sun)

“Any help community leaders are willing to provide in getting the word out to the general public about vaccine safety and efficacy is appreciated,” Gischlar wrote.

The Maryland call center meant for those without internet access takes on high volumes, including roughly 30,000 calls on Friday, Gischlar said. In less than a week, advocates have made more than 8,000 mass vaccinations appointments for callers.

In a statement, the Baltimore City mayor’s office said that the creation of additional hotlines “demonstrates the inefficiencies of the State’s decentralized vaccination appointment system and makes the benefits of a centralized ‘one-stop-shop’ appointment system for all eligible Marylanders, accessible both online and over the phone, as we continue to navigate this pandemic,” read the statement from Stefanie Mavronis, spokesperson for Mayor Brandon Scott.

The new hotline is needed, and churches like Simmons are trying to help spread the word to their communities, said pastor Duane Simmons.

Especially given that Black Americans are more likely to suffer severe consequences from the virus, in part because they are more likely to have comorbidities due to social determinants of health, the hotline could save lives, Cheatham said.

“Today, on what could have been, should have been the 81st birthday of John Lewis, we’re getting in ‘good trouble,’” Cheatham said.

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