Maryland officials have been allocating most COVID-19 vaccine doses designated for the state’s two mass vaccination sites to Six Flags America in Prince George’s County rather than the Baltimore Convention Center, the state health department confirmed Tuesday.
The two sites together receive about 16,000 of Maryland’s 88,000 total doses a week. About 2,000 people have been getting vaccinated each day at the Bowie amusement park, while about 400 people have been rolling up their sleeves daily at the convention center, according to Maryland Department of Health spokesman Charles Gischlar.
Gischlar said the health department has begun sending more vaccine doses to the convention center, which vaccinated about 1,000 people Tuesday and is expected to continue at that daily rate on average. That’s about half the volume at Six Flags.
He noted that a mass vaccination site will open Feb. 25 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, which will have a larger capacity for immunizations. The convention center also houses a COVID-19 testing center, as well as a field hospital.
In the meantime, Baltimore officials and state lawmakers are questioning the difference in allotment, calling it a disparity that gives preference to more affluent Marylanders.
People in 22 out of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions have claimed appointments at the Prince George’s County clinic, strategically located to serve a majority Black region of the state’s population, acting Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader said Monday during a state Senate vaccine oversight committee meeting. Thousands of appointments have been booked up in a matter of minutes there.
Schrader acknowledged that residents from Montgomery County had secured about 3,330 of the amusement park’s first 12,000 appointments, with the next highest percentage of people commuting from Howard County.
Democratic State Sen. Clarence Lam, a physician who represents Baltimore and Howard counties, said Six Flags’ output comes at the expense of people from low-income backgrounds and without digital fluency, as well as those who don’t have cars.
“Taking doses ... from local hospitals and health departments that really know their counties and delivering them to another county that isn’t even serving that county seems inequitable,” Lam said. “Folks in Sandtown [in West Baltimore] are not even going to make it to the convention center, let alone Six Flags.”
Democratic Baltimore City Council President Nick J. Mosby agreed. “What data show time and time again is that the state’s methodology for distributing the vaccine is leaving behind Maryland’s most vulnerable residents,” Mosby said. “If you are an 80-year-old woman in West Baltimore who does not have a computer, who has underlying health issues and has been secluded, you are desperately wanting this vaccine. But how do you get it?”
The Prince George’s County mass vaccination site has been touted by top Maryland officials as an example of the state’s ability to efficiently and equitably get shots into arms.
Schrader said the flood of bookings made there shows the benefits of a decentralized approach to vaccination, where people can choose to go wherever is most comfortable and convenient.
“What we’re learning is the migration patterns of people from county to county. We can’t control that,” Schrader told lawmakers Monday. “That’s the human behavior.
“On the front end, though, we are allocating equitably to the counties ... But we can’t control if Howard County residents go to Six Flags. We’re not going to stop them.”
The disparity in allocations between the two mass sites comes amid widespread concern among legislators and city and county officials over how the state in general has been dividing up the doses it receives from the federal government.
State health officials have released only partial information on how many doses go to each of the 23 counties and Baltimore City, and within those jurisdictions, to the various outlets authorized to offer vaccines to the public.
That lack of transparency leads to confusion and suspicions, particularly when a county like Prince George’s is shown to have a particularly lower rate of vaccination, said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, a former Maryland health secretary.
”There is a disconnect between the idea that counties are getting proportionate allocations and the reality that people are getting vaccinated at different rates,” said Sharfstein, a vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
”That disconnect is very confusing,” he said. “Transparency can help people understand what’s happening.”
The race to get immunized follows a deadly surge of new, daily infections, hospitalizations and deaths due to the coronavirus, which began in November and showed signs of subsiding in January. More contagious variants of the virus have since spread across the United States, which threatens to upend the success of the vaccination campaign.
A national shortage of vaccines has curtailed the speed of the complex rollout, which involves an extraordinary amount of planning and precision. Both of the authorized vaccine candidates in the U.S. call for two doses — three or four weeks apart, depending on the brand — and must be kept frozen.
Some states have been more efficient at administering shots than others. Maryland has vaccinated about 4.2% of its population as of Tuesday, with 655,277 people receiving at least one dose, according to state data. It ranks in the bottom half of all states and Washington, D.C., for the number of vaccine doses administered per 100,000 residents, according to an analysis of data collated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan defended the rollout last week, citing the state’s average of 26,211 doses administered per day. The state has increased the number of vaccines administered by more than 770% in about six weeks, he said.
He blamed Maryland’s problems on the federal government.
“We need more damn vaccines,” Hogan said. “We have no control whatsoever over this supply problem.”
But lawmakers, local health department heads and public health experts said Maryland’s rollout has been marred with confusion, inequity and miscommunication.
Hogan surprised county executives and local health departments in January when he announced the expansion of the state’s vaccine prioritization list to include adults over 65, as well as some essential workers, educators and people with certain health conditions, among others. In all, more than 2 million Marylanders are currently eligible for vaccines.
Meanwhile, preliminary data show minorities getting vaccinated at disproportionately low rates. And in Prince George’s County, a predominantly Black jurisdiction where about 15% of Marylanders live, only 7% of the first doses have been administered to residents there, while nearly every other jurisdiction has reported more proportional figures.