Maryland lawmakers and the head of a prison advocacy group are decrying the state health department’s monthslong delay in notifying hundreds of people who may have received spoiled COVID-19 vaccines from a contractor.
At least 28% of TrueCare24′s doses were administered in state correctional facilities, which have been a hotbed for coronavirus spread, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis of the vendor’s clinic locations and the number of shots given.
The agency’s decision not to terminate a contract for TrueCare24, which the department officials knew had mishandled vaccines, and its delay in alerting those affected likely will be discussed Wednesday at a state Senate coronavirus task force meeting and are scheduled to be taken up Jan. 13 by the House Health and Government Operations Committee, legislators said.
But, while legislators plan discuss the matter, they say they’re not sure what authority the General Assembly has, if any, to address the misstep.
“The Department of Health, the governor, the secretary of MDH Dennis [Schrader] ... have just simply put all of these people at risk,” said Democratic Del. Shane Pendergrass of Howard County, who chairs the House committee.
The Maryland Department of Health is “conducting a thorough review” of the way it handled TrueCare24’s noncompliance with state and federal health regulations, said Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, in an email.
The department’s clinical operations staff, which oversaw compliance at third-party vaccination clinics, notified agency officials in early September that TrueCare24 improperly stored temperature-sensitive doses in hotels and cars. While vaccine manufacturers verified that some of the incorrectly stored vaccines remained viable, TrueCare24 was unable to provide required records for much of its vaccine supply, leaving unanswered questions about how many of doses were spoiled.
As of late December, the health department had not notified people who received the shots. Spokesman Andy Owen said Monday that the department had now begun contacting them. According to an email The Sun obtained, the agency estimated at least 876 people were affected.
The deputy director of a Maryland Department of Health coronavirus recovery program, Jessicah Ray, had pressed agency officials to remediate the issues and notify the public. The Sun previously reported, based on documents it obtained, that she was transferred to another position and directed not to speak to former colleagues.
Ray submitted a whistleblower complaint alleging that around 1,000 people may have gotten ineffective vaccine to the state health department’s Office of the Inspector General, which declined to investigate and referred her to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The federal agency told Ray last week to take up the complaint with the state, she said.
TrueCare24 is a San Francisco-based telehealth service that has conducted COVID-19 testing and vaccination clinics. It has not responded to multiple phone calls and emails requesting an interview.
Julie Magers, executive director of the Maryland Prisoners’ Rights Coalition, expressed concern in a statement over whether some doses given to inmates were ineffective and how the situation could be remedied.
“We are extremely disappointed and unnerved with the ethics and lack of monitoring that allowed this to happen [and] which needs to be addressed,” Magers said.
Coronavirus infections continue to run rampant in prisons and vaccine delivery is inconsistent, she said.
“So, access to a ‘replacement’ vaccine in time to prevent further infection could prove near impossible given the inability in a correctional facility environment to properly quarantine and distance, the already poor health conditions, and the track record of poor delivery of medical services in our jails and prisons,” she said.
The Maryland Department of Public Safety, which oversees state correctional operations, referred a reporter’s questions to the health department.
Beyond the state’s failure to notify patients, the decision of the department’s inspector general not to investigate is “really concerning,” said Democratic Sen. Shelly Hettleman of Baltimore County.
She said it illustrates why she proposed a bill that passed the legislature last year to establish an independent IG office for the agency. The law doesn’t take effect until July. Currently, the inspector general’s office is a division within the department that is empowered to investigate potential fraud, waste and abuse of state funds.
“We want to make sure that when there are allegations of fraud like this, there is an appropriate entity that can really be independent and follow up on these concerns,” Hettleman said.
Ricci said the health department is reviewing “what steps are being taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“And we agree that such a review is warranted,” he added.
Pendergrass said the department’s delay in notifying the public is another misstep by Hogan’s administration in combating a pandemic that has killed 11,706 Marylanders as of Tuesday and sickened hundreds of thousands more.
“Like the Korean tests, the governor has swept this under the rug and hidden it,” she said.
Email and other records obtained by The Sun suggest Schrader was briefed on the matter; they do not mention Hogan.
In April 2020, Hogan spent $9 million to procure 500,000 COVID-19 testing kits from a South Korean company. The tests were not approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Schrader confirmed in December 2020 that the state had “swapped” them for new ones at a cost of $2.5 million.
“He ignored the whistleblower, and what we’re faced with is a public health hazard of his own making,” Pendergrass said of Hogan.
Baltimore Sun reporters Meredith Cohn and Hallie Miller contributed to this article.