Hogan announces vaccine equity plan, seeks partners
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.