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Maryland’s vaccine rollout is ‘Hunger Games’ of health care | COMMENTARY

John Howard receives a COVID-19 vaccine from MedStar Community Health Educator Tracy Holcomb during a mobile vaccine clinic at Cherry Hill Senior Manor Friday morning.
John Howard receives a COVID-19 vaccine from MedStar Community Health Educator Tracy Holcomb during a mobile vaccine clinic at Cherry Hill Senior Manor Friday morning. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

If we needed any more indication that the Maryland vaccination rollout has been an utterly, confusing mess, we got news Monday that there may not be enough doses for people to get their second shots. This came on the same day that the state opened up vaccines to yet another group of people (those with certain health conditions who are hospitalized) even as those in earlier groups, those older than age 65 for instance, are still desperately struggling to get an appointment. What sense does that make? Expanding eligibility for vaccines that aren’t available and building up false expectations and anger? Who exactly is running the vaccine ship? Maybe it’s time to get another captain.

The ways things are going now, Marylanders have lost all confidence in the rollout, with many comparing it to a version of “The Hunger Games” — a survival of the fittest competition where the people with the most resources (those who are tech savvy with computer access, in this case, or have hours on end to call around for an available appointment) have the best chance of securing a shot in the arm and making it to their next birthday. Meanwhile, thousands of elderly, low-income and disabled people are all left behind. It’s a crap shoot at best.

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Many Marylanders expressed frustration with the situation in the comments section of a Facebook panel Monday about the COVID vaccine sponsored by Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat. “The system is too complex and very difficult for many,” one person wrote. “Why does it seem like there’s no coherent plan widely understood by all?” asked another. “Right now, it seems like a very disorganized process,” said a third. “People are giving up,” a fourth declared.

Some of it is not the state’s fault. Making a vaccine is a complex process and only so many doses can be made at a time. The state can’t give out what is not available. The Trump administration also bungled efforts before leaving office, creating problems for many states. But none of this is new information, and people don’t want to hear the same excuses. State officials need to work realistically within the confines of the data. If there is not enough vaccine, why keep opening the floodgates to let more people in? Yes, the governor has warned repeatedly that the vaccine supply is too slow to meet the demand. That makes the decision to keep expanding eligibility even more curious. Rather than create its own natural disaster, the administration needs to immediately put a halt on new people who are allowed to get vaccines until more product is available. The Hogan administration has said it acted at the request of the local jurisdictions and the federal government. But it didn’t have to. Now, it’s time to exercise some leadership before we end up in a deeper hole.

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The state then needs to create a centralized process, one stop where people can go to sign up for a vaccine. Now, Marylanders reach out to different providers to try to find where vaccines appointments are still left and hope they win the luck of the draw. Most people are coming up losers. Take out the randomness and create a more uniform system. The Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, D.C., has said Maryland relied too much on counties in the rollout. We think the local jurisdictions should have some autonomy because each area of the state has different needs. Baltimore has large dense areas of poverty, while on the Eastern Shore people are more spread out. However, the state could do a better job at coordinating with local governments. Local officials have been forced to rely on week-to-week notices on vaccine allocation, county executives and the mayor of Baltimore have said. This leaves little time for planning. The Biden administration recently agreed to provide more notification to states and local leaders; Maryland should follow suit.

The state has set up a multifaceted distribution plan for when there are enough vaccines, that includes mass vaccination sites, such as at M&T Bank Stadium, as well as ways to target specific, hard-to-reach communities. But those plans are useless in the immediate moment if there are not enough vaccines doses, and the state should be doing more to manage people’s expectations and build confidence, rather than chaos, in the system. Marylanders by and large want the vaccine, but we also believe they are willing to practice patience if they know the reality. We are sure people would rather have transparency than be sent on a wild-goose chase that leaves them empty-handed and still vulnerable.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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