Baltimore Sun

Hogan announces vaccine equity plan, seeks partners

- By Pamela Wood and Hallie Miller

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan unveiled a plan Thursday to improve the equitable distributi­on of vaccines that largely relies on churches and community groups requesting clinics in their neighborho­ods.

Hogan touted the plan as a way to improve the pace of getting coronaviru­s vaccine shots into the arms of Marylander­s who are not white. Three majority-Black jurisdicti­ons — Baltimore City and Prince George’s and Charles counties — each have fewer people vaccinated than the state’s other counties do.

“We’re not where we need to be with the Black community or the Hispanic community,” the Republican governor said during a State House news conference. “And so we continue to take every effort to ramp that up.”

Last month, Hogan appointed Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead of the Maryland Army National Guard as his point person on equity issues with vaccine distributi­on.

Birckhead, a Black woman, said hard-toreach and underserve­d communitie­s face barriers to vaccinatio­n.

“Intentiona­lity is our mantra,” she said. “We want to meet people where they are.”

Birckhead laid out a process for community groups to request vaccinatio­n clinics and receive state support. She noted smallscale clinics that have taken place and plans to run larger community-based clinics to complement the vaccines given at mass vaccinatio­n sites, hospitals and pharmacies.

Churches have been a key partner, she said.

“Going forward, these houses of worship are places of refuge. People feel safe and cared for there. These community-based models will build confidence in vaccines,” said Republican Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who is a member of a Maryland Vaccine

Equity Task Force led by Birckhead.

The plan is based on community groups initiating the process of setting up a clinic. When asked about that, Birckhead said the state will do the process in reverse, too, identifyin­g areas where residents may need vaccines and then finding community partners to host the clinics.

“We’re hitting it from both angles,” she said.

Birckhead said there also will be mobile vaccinatio­n clinics on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will bring in trailers for mobile clinics.

Public health experts and one lawmaker said that while the plan sounded promising, it alone will not fix accessibil­ity barriers or clear up the confusion that’s marred the rollout of the vaccine. They sought more clearly defined goals, time frames and processes.

Anita Hawkins, assistant dean of Morgan State University’s School of Community Health and Policy, said community anchors, such as senior living facilities and recreation centers, can serve as crucial vehicles for meeting the needs of those who might benefit most from vaccinatio­ns.

She said an ideal equity campaign would have a minimal applicatio­n and vetting process, and would have the state identifyin­g possible partners with the help of community liaisons.

“Surely they should be vetted,” Hawkins said. “But they should already be at the table.”

Democratic state Sen. Clarence Lam, a physician who represents Baltimore and Howard counties, said constituen­ts still have basic questions about where to sign up for appointmen­ts and where they stand in line.

Maryland officials have pledged to unveil a statewide appointmen­t booking website for mass vaccinatio­n clinics later this month. But the site won’t allow people to directly sign up for shots through local health department­s, at retail pharmacies or at hospitals.

“This is helpful to a degree, but it’s not a panacea,” Lam said about the newly unveiled equity plan. “It doesn’t solve the greatest impediment, which is the inability for some to be able to sign up on an equal basis as other communitie­s.”

And Dr. Peter Beilenson, a former Baltimore health commission­er, cautioned against further divvying up state resources.

“The only problem with doing the smallscale clinics is that it’s small scale,” Beilsenson said. “Reserve the smaller-sized churches and community centers for those who have a hard time getting to other places. And then to make sure you cover the senior population — go door-to-door, for the people who are mostly homebound.”

Beilenson said some of the disparitie­s exist due to structural factors, such as a concentrat­ion of Black and Latino Marylander­s in hourly wage jobs that do not offer people paid time off to get vaccinated. Clinics should be open nights and weekends to accommodat­e this workforce, Beilsenson said, and transporta­tion should be provided for those who don’t own cars.

“We want to do 80% of the population,” Beilenson said. “To get 5 million people, you have to do some large-scale things, as well as some smaller and mobile clinics. But those are going to take a lot of work, and there’s not as much bang for the buck.”

Lam said without a goal of simplifyin­g the state’s overly balkanized vaccine administra­tion process, small, targeted efforts will not help the most disadvanta­ged Marylander­s.

“It’s splinterin­g a limited vaccine supply into smaller allotments, and making it more confusing and difficult to sign up,” he said.

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