Maryland’s efforts to vaccinate residents against COVID-19 got off to a stumbling start — particularly in its efforts to reach communities of color — but the Hogan administration at last seems to be heading in the right direction.
At a briefing Thursday on the work of his Vaccine Equity Task Force, Gov. Larry Hogan conceded that progress has been painfully slow, leading to widespread criticism of the state’s efforts.
“We are not where we need to be with the Black community or the Hispanic community,” Hogan said. But he added that every effort is being made to improve: “We work each and every day to ensure fairness and equitable access to the vaccine.”
After Baltimore city leaders recently criticized the state for not doing enough to vaccinate poor and Black people in the city, Hogan shot back that Baltimore had received “far more [doses] than they really were entitled to.” It was an insensitive remark that inflamed passions among Black leaders in the city just when the state needs them to be working to gain acceptance of the vaccine in their community.
But the squabble did shed light on where the state should be focusing its efforts to get the coronavirus pandemic under control. The danger of the disease is highest in communities of color.
The briefing by the task force leader, Brigadier Gen. Janeen Birckhead of the Maryland National Guard, showed that the administration recognizes the problem of disparity in vaccination rates, and is working hard, in very specific ways, to address it.
Here is the scope of the problem: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last month that Blacks are three times as likely as whites to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from it.
And yet, three former directors of the Baltimore Health Department, writing in the Washington Post on Feb. 27, said: “By our calculation based on the state health department data, white Marylanders are being vaccinated at a rate more than twice than that of Black Marylanders.”
The complaints are not confined to Baltimore. According to the news website Maryland Matters, Sen. Ron Young (D-Frederick) told Hogan aides at a recent legislative hearing that the one CVS in Frederick County that is receiving vaccines from the federal government “is in a wealthy white area.”
“We have pharmacies right in the heart of where the Hispanic and Asian and African-American communities are,” he added. “They’re not getting the shots. They’re well below the average of white people getting them. I’m sure a lot of them — if they had access — would do it.”
In part, the underperformance on vaccinating Black people is because of vaccine reluctance. Black people have a legitimate distrust of the medical establishment, which in the not-too-distant past, mistreated or ignored Black patients.
But missteps by the administration have exacerbated the problem.
The Trump administration warned states in September that they would be on their own in distributing vaccines, but Maryland did not build a robust system for signing up for vaccines and making appointments.
The state also over relied largely on websites to book appointments, putting lower income families without internet access and older people not comfortable with computers at a disadvantage.
While the vaccines were distributed based on population, appointments in the early days were not restricted to residents of the local communities. People naturally frantic to get immunized scoured websites looking for appointment times no matter how far from home. We have heard of Frederick residents for example traveling as far as Frostburg or Waldorf in search of vaccines.
The state did open two mass vaccination sites in Baltimore, but people from other communities rushed to make appointments because the sites were open to any Marylander. More than 60 percent of the doses administered in Baltimore have gone to people who live elsewhere, according to Maryland Matters.
It has been a chaotic system, made more frustrating because websites were poorly designed and telephone systems were overwhelmed.
The report from the task force shows that is finally changing. Gen. Birckhead provided an impressive outline of the ways in which the task force has been working creatively with local community organizations and churches to get more people vaccinated. The task force is also enlisting community leaders and elected officials to speak out on the safety of the vaccine.
The administration is creating another new program specifically designed to search out and immunize residents in communities of color. It will identify residents in communities where vaccination rates have lagged and engage them directly.
These efforts seem to be getting Maryland back on track. This is not the time for defensiveness, deflecting or recriminations. Cut Hogan some slack for his intemperate words but hold him accountable for getting the job done right.