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Democratic members of congressional delegation call for ‘course correction’ on Maryland’s COVID vaccinations

The Democratic members of Maryland’s congressional delegation called Wednesday on Gov. Larry Hogan to improve the rollout of the state’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign, citing frustration from constituents and local officials about inefficiency and inequity.

In a letter to the Republican governor, the members said Maryland should make a “course correction” on the distribution process, including offering a centralized, one-stop state website and a phone number accessible to all Marylanders to help them register for appointments; more coordination by the Maryland Department of Health with local health departments; and specificity about the order in which vaccines should be administered among eligible groups.

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U.S. senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin signed the letter, along with representatives Anthony Brown, Steny Hoyer, Kweisi Mfume, Jamie Raskin, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes and David Trone.

Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said in an email that state officials hold at least three calls each week with local health officers, in addition to one call with county leaders, and one call with municipal leaders.

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“We also had a productive call with congressional delegation staff this week, despite the press-driven tone of this letter,” added Ricci, saying that the state would share statewide guidance issued to providers each week with the congressional delegation, as well.

The delegation’s letter comes amid a national shortage in vaccine inventory and as demand for immunizations spikes. The two vaccines authorized for use in the United States are widely effective at preventing serious illness brought on by the coronavirus. More types of vaccines, and more doses, could become available in the next few weeks.

But until then, the pressure on state and local governments to administer vaccines will remain high, as more people continue to die from COVID-19 and the crisis wreaks havoc on the economy.

Asked last week about implementing a centralized vaccine administration system, Hogan said at a news conference that the current approach is “just the way our system is set up,” as well as being how other states handle it and what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends.

“We have county health officers and we have county health departments in each jurisdiction and they’re the ones,” he said.

He noted the state was building a state-run system with the upcoming mass vaccination sites, but presently, “there is no state workforce to go out into these 24 jurisdictions and stick all the needles in the arms.”

Members of the congressional delegation acknowledged the complexity of the rollout and a lack of federal guidance related to vaccinations. But they criticized Hogan’s decision to expand eligibility as supply remains limited, and expressed concerns about the state’s plan to reach the most vulnerable communities in Maryland.

“MDH has not released clear directions, nor created a streamlined process needed for Marylanders to actually get a vaccine,” the members wrote. “It is critical that the state put forward a strategy that addresses the glaringly apparent disparities in vaccine access and increases equitable vaccine administration to minority communities.”

Ricci said each jurisdiction receives an equitable share of vaccines based on population across all providers. County health departments are one facet of a broad distribution network, he noted.

Appointments to get the vaccine in Maryland and elsewhere have been hard to come by, especially for older adults and those without computers or digital fluency.

Also, preliminary data shows white Marylanders account for most of the inoculations, with Black people receiving about 16% of the total despite making up about 31% of the state’s population.

About 2 million to 3 million doses are necessary to give one dose of a vaccine to everyone currently eligible in Maryland, according to the state, and it receives an average of 10,000 doses a day from the federal government.

In a series of questions posed to Hogan, the congressional group asked for a breakdown of how the state plans to use $402.6 million in federal relief provided for vaccine distribution, testing, contact tracing and mitigation; a record of contracts between the state and private-sector partners engaged in those efforts; and more details about the state-run mass vaccination sites and how they will complement local health departments’ work.

“Due to the lack of a simple and centralized process, local health departments are grappling with an influx of residents trying to receive a vaccine from a county in which they do not reside or work,” the letter reads. “Leaving localities to fend for themselves and compete amongst each other is counterproductive.”

Vaccination funding announcements are coming, Ricci said.

He referred the delegation’s questions about contracts to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which has coordinated a transfer program for states to partner with pharmacies.

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