As the coronavirus vaccine remains scarce due to low supply throughout Maryland and Frederick County, local officials stressed the importance of equitable and simple access for everyone, regardless of race or where they reside in the city or the county.
County Executive Jan Gardner (D) said Tuesday she was pleased the county received more doses this week after convincing state health officials that previous supply was low compared to counties with similar population counts.
But next week, the count is expected to decrease, she said. Those working on the Janssen (Johnson and Johnson) vaccine need time to ramp up their production after releasing its first stockpile to states nationwide.
Gardner said as supply ramps up, county health officials and others will explore introducing mobile pop-up clinics at African American churches, along the Golden Mile and in rural areas outside the city.
Rev. Mark Groover of Asbury United Methodist Church in downtown Frederick said he is happy to open up his church as a vaccine site once there is enough supply. The church currently offers coronavirus testing every Saturday as long as people give a telephone number, Groover said.
The pandemic has hit the African American community hard, Groover said—and they also face challenges to sign up for the vaccine, whether it be a lack of internet access, transportation or time to set up and attend an appointment.
Groover resides in Baltimore, where Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D) have publicly sparred about vaccine allocation. Many issues African Americans face there are also present in Frederick, Groover said.
According to U.S. Census estimates from 2019, 19.2 of Frederick’s population is African American, 16.8 percent is Hispanic or Latino and 6.2 percent is Asian.
“I think the issue is even throughout the African-American community … the problems you have in Baltimore, you certainly have in Frederick,” Groover said. “The lack of health insurance, the lack of resources, so I think that’s prevalent through all people of color in poor communities.”
Derek Shackelford, an alderman for the city and the pastor at Buckeystown United Methodist Church, said there’s another challenge, specifically for the African American community: building trust in the vaccine itself.
Shackelford has hosted a podcast with numerous local officials including Dr. Barbara Brookmyer, the county’s chief health officer, to discuss the pandemic, the vaccine and related topics.
The issues of transportation and health care access are prevalent in African American communities, he added. That population needs to have a voice at the table in further distribution, given the inequities already exposed by the pandemic.
“We have to be in the room when this conversation is taking place and making sure when the logistical things are happening,” he said of future distribution.
There is also the question of older residents, who live in much more rural areas of the county.
Sister Martha Beaudoin, administrator of the Seton Center in Emmitsburg, said transportation remains a key issue when trying to get the coronavirus vaccine.
She feels a site is needed in either Thurmont or Emmitsburg to fix that shortcoming, especially as supply picks up.
“They don’t have vehicles, or they don’t have trustworthy vehicles,” Beaudoin said. “They’re old clunkers, and that’s what prevents them from getting down to Frederick.”
Even for those who might be closer to the vaccine, there’s the question of education and helping people set up appointments through language barriers or other obstacles.
Elizabeth Chung, executive director of the Asian American Center of Frederick, knows the supply is limited right now, but she said there needs to be a plan in place when more becomes available in the coming weeks.
Chung said she secured state funding to hire community health workers to assist the hospital and county health department in vaccine distribution. But still, some non-English speakers find that securing an appointment can be “a very laborious process.”
She added that many might feel more comfortable going to primary care providers once more vaccine becomes available. Maria Shuck, however, noted many minorities might not have health insurance to attend one of those providers.
Shuck, director of Centro Hispano de Frederick, said there’s also a lack of education among the local Latino population about the vaccine itself and where to get it. Frederick Health Hospital and the county health department are doing their best, but there are still language barriers and other obstacles, she added.
“I think when the time comes, when there is enough vaccine to open the floodgates, I think the powers that be need to go through the African American community, especially the churches, and for Latinos, reach out to the nonprofits that are specifically aimed at helping Latinos,” Shuck said. “We have to have a seat at the table when it comes to planning and organizing.”
As that planning occurs, Gardner said there’s another challenge, which was hinted at by Shackelford and Shuck: convincing larger swaths of the population to get the vaccine once it’s more readily available.
“I do remind everybody that in a couple of months, if we all see this explosion of volume of supply, we’re going to get to a point where we’re trying to get to that hard-to-reach group of people out there … and cajoling people into getting the vaccine who are uncomfortable with it,” Gardner said. “Even though, I do believe we will see more and more interest in it over time.”
Staff writer Greg Swatek contributed to this report.