Harford County officials are encouraging the state to use Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen as a mass vaccination site, expressing concern that COVID-19 vaccine doses are being stifled in their jurisdictions following the recent openings of large-scale vaccination sites in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County.
According to a letter sent to the acting secretary of health Dennis R. Schrader, Ripken Stadium’s proximity to Interstate 95 and Route 40 would allow Marylanders easy access to the potential vaccination site.
Sitting as the board of health Tuesday night, the Harford County Council unanimously approved the letter of support, which was signed by County Executive Barry Glassman, County Health Officer David Bishai and County Council President Patrick Vincenti.
There are over 40,000 county residents pre-registered with the health department to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, Bishai told the county council Tuesday, but because of the limited supply of first doses, which has remained stagnant for county health departments across the state, Harford is giving about 200 first doses of the vaccine a day.
Allocations of the vaccines to the Harford County Health Department have not increased in two weeks Bishai said he believes the state is prioritizing the mass vaccination sites.
“My inference is that the state has thought that the growth in new vaccines will go to these mass vaccine sites,” he said. “So if we want to be positioned for growth, we need to have a mass vaccine site in order to capture that growth.”
The health department is efficiently administering vaccines, Bishai said. Elected officials and vaccine recipients have commended the clinic at Patterson Mill while the health department and county leaders continue to advocate for more doses. Bishai said he wished the state’s decision was different.
“We could easily triple the number of doses we are getting out every day, and yet the state in its decision has decided to grow the dose availability in other venues,” Bishai said, “and when they are putting those venues far away from Harford County, it is not of great benefit to our citizens, so I really hope the supply opens up here.”
Vincenti said the request to use the stadium would not immediately change the state of vaccinations in the county. The supply of available vaccines is very limited, he said, so Harford wants to position itself for the future.
“We are preparing ourselves for the time when manufacturing ramps up,” he said. “We want to be ahead of the game, ahead of the curve so we can implement it as quickly as possible and as efficiently as possible.”
Ripken Stadium was previously used for a mass testing clinic hosted in August. It has a large parking lot and refrigeration on-site, though no ultra-cold refrigerators that are required to store the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.
Glassman also noted Ripken Stadium’s regional advantages, being near major roads. He said the letter also signals the county’s interest in a possible federal mass vaccination site.
In an interview, the county executive said he does not see an immediate concern with mass vaccination sites diverting doses from local agencies. The mass vaccination sites currently have small supplies of vaccine, and he does not expect them to deliver significant numbers of doses until production speeds up.
“Everyone is anxious, and folks want to get their shot, but I think the worst thing public officials can do is over-promise until we can get the supply,” he said. “We are kind of getting in queue for when there is vaccine.”
Speaking at a video meeting of the Board of Public Works Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford said additional mass vaccination sites are in the works for M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore and locations in southern Maryland, western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore. Northern Maryland, and Harford County specifically, were not mentioned.
Rutherford also rejected the idea that the state was stockpiling vaccines, saying “everything that has been allocated to the state has been distributed.”
In a Monday letter, the Maryland Association of Counties sent a list of recommendations for improving the vaccination effort and increasing transparency to Gov. Larry Hogan. The association recommended sharing the Maryland Department of Health’s weekly vaccine allocation projections with the public and sending the projections sooner to allow providers to plan logistics for distribution.
The association also recommended publishing more complete data on allocations to private providers; limited hospital data is available, but no data concerning pharmacy chains is provided.
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Those vaccine allocations, the letter states, should also go to local health departments before private providers, and alludes to allocations to the mass vaccination sites.
“Diverting doses to private providers and new state-run sites leaves that publicly funded capacity underutilized,” the letter states.
MACo’s letter was signed by a number of county executives, including Glassman, and top officials from Prince George’s County and Baltimore, where the first mass vaccination sites opened.
Superintendent of Harford County Public Schools Sean Bulson expressed frustration earlier this week with the few vaccines going to school employees as they plan to return to classrooms in March. At a Monday night meeting of the county’s Board of Education, he said he suspected those doses were being redirected the mass vaccination clinics instead of going to the health department.
Molly Mraz, a spokesperson for the Harford County Health Department, said the state “is stifling supply in the most successful outlet.” The local department’s track record with vaccinations supports increasing its allocation of vaccines as quickly as allocations to private vaccinators.
“Eventually, though, more outlets will need to grow faster than the health department,” she said. “That time will come, but it is not now.”
The Maryland Department of Health did not respond to questions in time for the publication of this article.