Maryland senators, already frustrated over what they call the inequitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccine in the state, criticized the state health department’s performance at a weekly hearing Monday.
As lawmakers on the Senate’s Vaccine Oversight Workgroup questioned Acting State Health Secretary Dennis Schrader, they pointed to Prince George’s County, a majority Black jurisdiction.
The county has a new state-run mass vaccination site at Six Flags, but it continues to have the lowest vaccination rate among the counties. As of Tuesday, only a little more than 5% of the county’s population has received first doses and about 1.65% has received second doses.
As he did at last week’s hearing, Schrader blamed vaccine hesitancy.
“So I think we still have tremendous work to do,” he said. “We need more people from the community who are standing up and saying that we need this vaccine.”
That wasn’t good enough for Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Democrat who represents Prince George’s and Anne Arundel County.
“I don't get it,” he said. “There are many Prince Georgians who want to get vaccines. And to say that well, nobody in Prince George wants to get a vaccine, therefore, they're all coming from other places, doesn't pass the laugh test. What is the problem?”
Rosapepe said he’d just gotten a text during the hearing from a frustrated constituent who’d signed up for vaccines at multiple sites.
“All these different places, they've heard nothing from nobody,” he said. “You understand why that's the case?”
Schrader did not answer.
Rosapepe also asked what the state was doing for residents who are in rural areas or do not have Internet access. Schrader said those residents should call 211.
“If they're in a particular area, and there are two locations nearby, they're going to give them the two locations nearby,” Schrader said.
That drew another question from Rosapepe.
“And you're confident that the people at the two locations will speak multiple languages, and therefore will be able to help people who don't speak English?” he asked.
Schrader said he wasn’t sure.
Sen. Clarence Lam, a Democrat representing parts of Baltimore and Howard counties, demanded to know when the state would release information on how many vaccines were going to each county. He said there was no way of ensuring vaccine distribution was equitable until they had that data.
“I've asked for this information,” Lam said. “And it seems like others have asked for this information as well. But this information is not forthcoming.”
Schrader then presented data on Baltimore City, Howard, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. He said he is hoping to complete data on all counties by the end of this week.
Sen. Mary Washington, a Baltimore City Democrat, questioned what the state was doing to ensure vaccines were going into the right arms.
Schrader said he trusted local health departments and providers were doing their jobs.
“We don't believe that we have to look over their shoulder to make sure they're doing what we're asking them to do,” Schrader said.
Washington then questioned why Maryland has been slower than some states with similar demographics to get vaccines into the arms of more vulnerable communities, like Black and low-income residents.
“I'm looking at DC, and I look at Virginia, and there's some similarities to Maryland,” Washington said. “They're doing much better.
Schrader pushed back.
“I would respectfully say that we're doing a pretty darn good job. We are close to 90% of first shots.” he said. “So the numbers speak for themselves. We are getting people vaccinated every day.”
Still, Maryland has been behind the majority of states in getting doses into arms. Washington pushed Schrader to look into other states’ strategies, stressing ongoing inequities in distribution.
Other senators continued to push for a single centralized website for vaccine appointments, but Schrader reiterated that the state would not do that.