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Despite some of the state’s highest COVID rates, 2 Western Maryland counties won’t receive any of first round of vaccines

Allegany County’s hospital, UPMC Western Maryland in Cumberland, is not among the hospitals that the Maryland Department of Health determined would receive an initial allotment of the first batch of coronavirus vaccines. The hospital is shown on Nov. 18, 2020.
Allegany County’s hospital, UPMC Western Maryland in Cumberland, is not among the hospitals that the Maryland Department of Health determined would receive an initial allotment of the first batch of coronavirus vaccines. The hospital is shown on Nov. 18, 2020. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Allegany and Garrett counties in Western Maryland, which have some of the state’s highest rates of COVID-19, won’t receive any of the first batch of vaccines expected to arrive in Maryland as soon as next week.

“We’re absolutely struggling right now,” said Jacob C. “Jake” Shade, the Republican president of the Allegany Board of County Commissioners. “It’s troubling we’re not the No. 1 priority for the state of Maryland.”

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Maryland expects to receive 50,700 doses of Pfizer Inc. vaccines as early as Monday, and will distribute them to hospitals for their frontline staffs.

But Allegany’s hospital, UPMC Western Maryland in Cumberland, is not among the hospitals that the Maryland Department of Health determined would receive an initial allotment of this first batch, according to hospital, industry, local and state officials. The state health department has told local leaders they will prioritize Allegany for a second shipment of another vaccine, from Moderna, which is expected a week later.

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Shade and other elected officials in Western Maryland said time is of the essence with the coronavirus raging through their region. With Moderna’s version requiring an extra week between the two necessary doses of the vaccine, it’s the difference between getting the first hospital staff fully vaccinated as early as Jan. 4 versus Jan. 18.

“It just doesn’t make any damn sense,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. David Trone, the 6th District congressman. “We cannot leave Western Maryland behind yet again.”

Trone represents Allegany, Garrett and Washington counties, as well as parts of Frederick and Montgomery counties.

After initially being spared the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic, cases surged in the panhandle of the state last month. The region is home to Frostburg State University and several state and federal prisons, which have experienced COVID outbreaks, and until recently did not have a state-sponsored testing facility. Some, including Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, have pointed to a reluctance among people in this part of the state to adhere to mask-wearing and social distancing measures.

Whatever the reasons for the spike, the region’s COVID rates far outstrip the rest of Maryland: According to the state’s most recent data, per 100,000 population, Allegany had more than 158 cases and Garrett had almost 109, compared with the state average of about 48.

Garrett’s rate of positive tests is just under 18%, and Allegany’s is almost 14%, compared with the statewide average of over 7%.

State health officials said they allocated the vaccines to hospitals according to the number of staff that each facility reported.

“A survey was sent to the Maryland Hospital Association asking for hospitals to report both numbers of critical, frontline clinical staff ... and staff with direct patient contact,” said Charles Gischlar, a spokesman for the state health department.

These populations are the focus of the initial allocation, with hospitals expected to receive subsequent allocations for other sections of their workforce.

UPMC Western Maryland reported 150 staff, but Pfizer packages its vaccine in containers of 975, Gischlar said.

Shade said he was told the state couldn’t send the first Pfizer vaccines to hospitals with fewer staff than vaccines in the container.

Shade disputed that number, saying the hospital has about 1,500 frontline staff. It is part of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center system and serves an area that includes Western Maryland and parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

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Shade said he contacted state officials to tell them UPMC had far more than 150 frontline health care workers. He said he was told health department staff would review the issue, and he said he hoped it was not too late to change the allocations for the first Pfizer batch.

Barry Ronan, UPMC Western Maryland president, said in a statement that there was a “calculation error” that “occurred after the information was subsequently submitted downstate by UPMC Western Maryland.” Ronan did not indicate where the mistake occurred.

Ronan said UPMC has been assured it is a priority for the second distribution.

“We are ready,” he said.

The Garrett County Regional Medical Center in Oakland is a smaller facility, with staff numbering about 500. But Paul Edwards, the Republican chair of the county’s Board of Commissioners, said workers elsewhere, such as first responders, also come in contact with COVID-positive individuals.

“It seems counterintuitive the two counties with the highest infection rates are being left out,” Edwards said. “I don’t like it and I certainly wish it could be different.”

He said that while the county is in line to receive the Moderna doses a week later, that might be too late for some.

“We’re not talking about being shut out totally. But, to be fair, those seven days could be the difference between life and death for some people,” he said.

According to information obtained by The Baltimore Sun, other smaller counties are in a similar position.

The case and positivity rates in Somerset County on the Eastern Shore are among the highest in the state, with about 146 cases per 100,000 people and a 13% positivity rate. And it is among 12 counties without a hospital that will receive the first batch of vaccines. That’s according to a list from the state hospital association provided to The Sun by the state health department.

With the pandemic spreading uncontrollably in many parts of the country and a dark winter expected ahead, vaccines are viewed as a potential light at the end of the tunnel.

The Pfizer vaccine received approval Friday evening for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The agency is expected to approve the Moderna in the coming days.

After the initial batch of Pfizer vaccines, Maryland expects to receive 104,300 doses from Moderna a week later. These represent only the first shipments from the federal government, state officials say.

Maryland will roll out the vaccines in a “pyramid” of priorities, starting with health care workers, residents and staff of long-term care facilities and first responders; then people at significantly higher risk of severe COVID illness; followed by those in critical, essential infrastructure roles and those at moderately higher risk of severe illness, and finally, the general population.

“Essentially, we are at the very top of our pyramid right now,” Gischlar said. “Every region and every hospital in Maryland will receive vaccines from the initial federal allocation of 155,000 doses. Information from the federal government is changing daily, but allocating that first 155,000 doses is our focus right now.”

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