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Maryland facing shortage of second COVID vaccine doses, health secretary says

Maryland is facing a shortage of second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, the state’s acting health secretary said Monday, putting hospitals at risk of not being able to complete the regimen of many people who have already received the first dose, including front-line workers.

Dennis R. Schrader, the acting secretary, told a General Assembly work group that the shortages were causing “a lot of angst” in the state health department and that the state believes some allotment numbers were miscommunicated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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“We think that in the transition between the two administrations, HHS has been having a struggle reconciling the data,” Schrader told the state Senate’s Vaccine Oversight Work Group during an online meeting.

He said the shortage followed a 34,000-dose “windfall” from the federal government the week before.

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But officials at the federal agency disputed the state’s account, saying allocations to states have not changed and that it was up to states to distribute doses appropriately.

“We are working closely with state health officials in Maryland to clarify any misunderstanding,” said Bill Hall, a spokesman for the federal department.

“No allocations provided to states have changed or lowered,” Hall said.

“All first and second doses allocated to states are being made available for them to order at the appropriate interval, in accordance with the published schedule and cadence,” he continued. “Doses are being delivered at the quantities and locations directed by the states.”

Maryland health department officials did not respond to questions from The Baltimore Sun about the discrepancy and what they plan to do about the current shortage of doses.

The state officials also have not said whether the second-dose shortage is specific to hospitals, which primarily have been vaccinating an estimated 150,000 front line health care workers. Local health departments also have been providing vaccines to first responders, people over 65 and other priority groups.

“We’ve been on the phone with them all weekend,” Schrader told lawmakers, adding that he doesn’t “want to give up” on the federal government just yet.

Both of the two vaccines authorized in the United States require two doses, administered 21 and 28 days apart. Both doses are required for full protection against serious illness brought on by COVID-19, though vaccine makers have said some protection is provided by the first dose.

Appointments to get the vaccine in Maryland and elsewhere have been hard to come by as national vaccine inventory remains low. As of Monday, 455,910 people in the state had gotten at least one dose, according to state health department figures. About 2 million to 3 million doses are necessary to give one dose of a vaccine to everyone who is currently eligible in Maryland, according to the state.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said the state is seeking clarity from the federal government on this week’s second dose allocations.

“Those conversations are ongoing,” he said in an email.

Ricci also said the state is following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which allows for the second dose to be administered up to six weeks after the first.

“This also points to why we are not, as some have suggested, allowing providers to utilize first doses as second doses,” he said.

In an email obtained Monday by The Sun, Bob Atlas, president & CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association, called the deficit “distressing” in a note to hospital leaders.

He said a shipment of second dose deliveries did not arrive last week and are still unaccounted for. Second doses expected for this week “are about one-third lower than the corresponding dose allocation from 3-4 weeks ago would call for,” he wrote. “The State of Maryland is demanding immediate clarification from HHS on the discrepancy in the Week 7 deliveries and the shortfall in Week 8.”

Atlas did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

In the meantime, it’s not clear how each hospital will handle a shortfall of second doses.

“LifeBridge Health has allocated all of our current doses, and we are working to mitigate how a potential shortfall may affect those plans,” said Sharon Boston, spokeswoman for LifeBridge Health, a large health care system that includes the flagship Sinai Hospital in Northwest Baltimore.

“To ensure compliance with vaccine protocols, we have prioritized second doses for those who have already received their first vaccinations,” she said.

The hospital system so far has been vaccinating its workers and a limited number of the 70,000 people from the community who have registered at one of the LifeBridge facilities for the vaccine.

Maryland Sen. Clarence Lam, a physician who represents parts of Howard and Baltimore counties, suggested the state authorize hospitals to reallocate first doses meant for 1B and 1C populations to health care workers in the 1A priority group, should they not have enough second doses available. He said the state ideally should not stray far from the dosage intervals.

“The buck has to stop somewhere, and right now, we have a potential crisis in the state,” Lam said. He said the health department “has to step up and address this.”

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