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Baltimore COVID vaccination too slow, difficult to access | COMMENTARY

Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa and Mayor Brandon Scott give an update on Baltimore City’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and vaccine distribution. January 5, 2021.
Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa and Mayor Brandon Scott give an update on Baltimore City’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and vaccine distribution. January 5, 2021. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

On March 1, 1947, a man got on a bus in Mexico City and traveled to New York City. In addition to his luggage, he brought smallpox with him. By early April, three more people had contracted the illness; within days the city began vaccinating the public. In the first two weeks of the vaccination campaign, 5 million people were inoculated. By early May, over 6 million New Yorkers had received the vaccination, and the campaign was stopped. The vaccine already existed, but it was no small feat to get that number of doses to New York City and to administer them — and yet it was done.

The first vaccine for COVID was approved for emergency use by the FDA on Dec. 11th. A second vaccine was approved only days later, and, if you were watching CNN, you know that trucks and planes were standing by, ready to move vaccines the moment they were approved.

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This month, the Baltimore City Health Department began offering vaccinations for health care workers who are not hospital employees. The city has been offering COVID vaccines at a single site: Building 37 at Port Covington. As a psychiatrist, I fall into the 1A health care worker category, and on Jan. 8th, I received an email from the Board of Physicians with instructions. The campaign to vaccinate 1A workers runs through Jan. 29. On Jan. 15th, the eligibility was expanded to include senior citizens, and all available slots were filled by the following day.

I arrived 45 minutes early for a 10:30 a.m. appointment on Jan. 13th and joined a line of people that wrapped around the building. Once inside, a physician greeted me and asked if I had any questions. The staff could not have been nicer. I asked the gentleman at the check-in desk how many people they were vaccinating — the answer was 500 to 600 people a day, increased from 300 a day the week before. I did a quick calculation: at 600 people a day, it will take nearly 4 years to administer the first dose to the 600,000 residents of Baltimore; since everyone needs a second dose, we should be in on course to resume our old “normal” in just under 8 years.

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Vaccination slots are available Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. It’s almost as though our city leaders have not heard that there is a pandemic. There are no evening or weekend hours, and the single site is not central or easily accessible. I drove 20 minutes to Port Covington. To get there from my home in Baltimore City by public transportation, I would have had to take two buses, a MetroLink subway ride, and walked 1.5 miles — each way. Hospitals are just now beginning to offer vaccines to those who are not their employees. Johns Hopkins Medicine, for example, has partnered with Baltimore City Public Schools to start vaccinating 500 teachers and staff members a week, a pace that won’t cover all of Baltimore’s 10,000 teachers until the school year is over. And that’s just for the first dose.

As of Tuesday morning, 6,476 Marylanders have died of COVID. We need to vaccinate more people, more quickly. If the issue is the availability of vaccines, or the fear that we will run out, the messaging on this has been confusing. We hear that only one-third of the supply has been administered, that doses have been tossed when the “right” person’s arm is not available and that we need campaigns to convince people to get this vaccine we don’t have. More vaccine is being produced, and more pharmaceutical companies are vying for emergency authorizations. But while there will be more, what supplies we do have are not doing any good sitting in their vials.

We learned so much from the events of this past summer, with many organizations offering training on racial inequities and Black Lives Matter. Yet Baltimore is a city where the majority of the population is Black, and there has been no provision made in the vaccination campaign to make this easy for those who must work during these abbreviated banker’s hours or for those who can’t drive to Port Covington. More than any training, this really is a situation where Black Lives Matter in a way that actions would speak so much louder than words.

As our supply of vaccine increases, perhaps we should use our polling sites to vaccinate. People are used to going somewhere local to vote, the sites are often school gymnasiums, and every Election Day they accommodate a large flow of people with extended hours.

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They did it in 1947, we can do it in 2021.

Dinah Miller (DinahMiller@yahoo.com) is a psychiatrist in Baltimore.

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