Regional vaccination update: Among the five states that make up Pamadelginia — Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia — the oddly shaped one in the middle continues to lead the way. About 63% of eligible Maryland residents are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus (83% of us have at least one shot), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The closest in the fully-vaccinated category is Virginia (59%) and last, by far, is West Virginia (40%).
More than 10,000 Marylanders have died in the pandemic. But how many lives were saved because the state and local governments took the threat seriously from the start and citizens got the shots?
West Virginia, by contrast, got off to a fast start on vaccinations then fell off.
Back in January, the wealthy governor of the Mountain State appeared on Sunday morning TV to trumpet his state’s vaccination program. “We’re saving all kinds of lives,” Jim Justice declared with the bluster we’ve come to expect from Republican billionaires who get into politics. “West Virginia has been the diamond in the rough that a lot of people have missed.”
The reason for this boast was West Virginia’s quick distribution of vaccines through local pharmacies and health departments. Appearing on “Face The Nation,” Justice said West Virginia’s success was because “we are practical thinking people with a lot of really smart people here getting it done.”
Yeah, well, maybe all the really smart people got their shots early on. By July, Justice was frustrated. Despite his administration’s earnest efforts to deliver the vaccine to 1.8 million residents, half of them in rural areas, the needle didn’t move much in West Virginia. In fact, at 40% fully vaccinated, it’s last among all states.
Maryland, meanwhile, ranks 7th. We can easily speculate about the difference: Marylanders are more urbanized and educated than West Virginians. (According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 40% of Marylanders over age 25 have a college degree; in West Virginia, just 20%.)
The household income difference is most stark: West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the country, and Maryland is one of the wealthiest — in some surveys, the wealthiest of all. Those must be factors in vaccination disparity.
Still, it’s clear by now that anyone just about anywhere can get vaccinated if they want to. The only consistent obstacles have been the absurd politicalization of the pandemic, the nonsensical criticism of medical expertise in right-wing media and the anti-mask Republican governors. Their incompetence or willful negligence — or, in some cases, both — shows in their states’ hospitalizations and death tolls.
And in their vaccination rates.
Down at the bottom are Wyoming, Idaho, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and South Carolina. And some of the people who live in those red states are, as in West Virginia, among the poorest in the country. You’d think the pandemic would have opened their eyes and made them yearn for something better.
But I’ll leave that there and return to Maryland for some other news from the vaccine front.
Important deadlines loom for health care workers to be vaccinated. I’ve been watching this for several weeks because I find it incredible that anyone employed in a hospital, clinic or nursing home would balk at being vaccinated — especially now, after more than 380 million doses have been given to Americans. Doctors, nurses and support staff have to be vaccinated against flu, measles and mumps. Why would they not expect shots against COVID-19 as a condition of continued employment?
And yet, concerns have been raised that hospitals, already stressed and understaffed, will lose more employees if they are forced to choose between vaccination and a job. Some members of the Harford County Council brought this up recently with regard to University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health in Bel Air.
I asked Martha Mallonee, communications director, about it. “Like many hospitals across the country, UM Upper Chesapeake Health faces staffing restraints which have been exacerbated by the high number of unvaccinated COVID positive patients admitted to our hospitals,” she said, adding this: “We have filled 208 positions in the last 3 months, including adding 38 new nurses.”
I inquired about the University of Maryland Medical System because it’s the state’s largest hospital network. In June, the UMMS administration said it would require its 29,000 employees, including those at Upper Chesapeake, to get vaccinated by the end of summer. (The actual deadline is Oct. 1.)
In one of his few shining moments of the last month, President Joe Biden took the effort to a national level, making vaccines mandatory for the roughly 17 million employees for health facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid. That, of course, includes the UMMS.
Employees who haven’t been fully vaccinated or received a medical or religious exemption by Friday get a warning and go on unpaid leave for 30 days or until they comply, whichever comes first. “[Employees] who are not compliant by Oct. 30 will be considered to have resigned from their position,” Michael Schwartzberg, media relations director for UMMS, explained in an email.
On Wednesday, I asked Schwartzberg where things stood.
“We’re at about 95% vax rate right now,” he said.
That’s more great news.
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But it’s a shame to lose any health worker in a health crisis. So, you there, in the reticent 5% — there’s still time to get your shots and keep your jobs. You don’t need to travel by car or bus, either. Just take the elevator.