Maryland is set to launch an online portal for all of its COVID-19 mass vaccination sites in March. Acting State Health Secretary Dennis Schrader made the announcement at a hearing Monday, where state senators continued to demand a more equitable distribution of the vaccine.
Schrader told the senate’s Vaccine Oversight Workgroup that the new website would help manage the large number of appointments at the state’s sites.
“We expect that establishing a pre registration system will improve the user experience and better prepare for the day when supplies are very, very abundant,” Schrader said.
The state operates sites at the Baltimore Convention Center and Six Flags America in Prince George’s County. Another at the M&T Bank Stadium is set to open Thursday.
A website for appointments at that stadium opened Monday but crashed immediately.
Residents trying to register online for appointments at other locations would still have to go to separate websites.
For weeks, senators have pushed the state health department to create a single portal for all vaccination sites, saying residents were having trouble making appointments on multiple sites.
Schrader and Gov. Larry Hogan have consistently pushed back on that idea, saying it would create a single point of failure.
When Michael Powell, Maryland’s chief innovation officer, said Maryland continues to lag behind most states in getting vaccines into arms, Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Democrat representing parts of Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, demanded to know why.
Schrader said he has asked people to look into it, but suggested that state rankings were not a priority.
“To be honest with you, I'm reluctant to distract people, focusing on data and analysis and competition with other states,” he told Rosapepe.
Schrader touted that the state has used 98% of its first doses.
But Rosapepe pointed out that a snow storm last week led to fewer doses getting to the state. He suggested that may have led to a higher percentage of first doses used.
He urged Schrader to look into what other states were doing to distribute vaccines.
“I would just suggest you focus a little bit more, not for the ego of the health department, but for the health of Maryland citizens,” Rosapepe said. “Clearly, there are other states that are doing this better than we are.”
Schrader has said opening new locations like mass vaccination sites would create a smoother and more equitable distribution process.
But according to Powell’s data, the gap between Black and white Marylanders who have been vaccinated is growing.
Sen. Mary Washington, a Baltimore City Democrat, demanded to know what the state health department is doing to get vaccines into the arms of Black residents.
“You keep saying there's vaccine hesitancy, and that's sort of a blaming the victim approach,” Washington said. “Whereas the data says we need more walk up clinics, we need more 24 hour walk up. We need mobile units.”
Washington also lamented that many seniors are not getting their vaccine. She said one of those seniors sent her a frantic email that day, saying they couldn’t get their vaccine and lived in a condo where at least five people had been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last three weeks.
“Can you assure us that this time next week that you're going to really look at the barriers that we know, barriers and communication?” Washington asked. “People are just getting so many different messages. Or not a message. Give us some assurance here that we're going to address structural issues.”
Schrader said they are “systematically marching forward” in getting seniors vaccinated. He blamed the disparities in distribution on the shortage of doses coming from the federal government.
When Washington asked what accommodations are being made for people who need transportation to vaccination sites or have to wait in line for hours, Schrader said he didn’t know.
Sen. Clarence Lam, a Democrat representing parts of Baltimore and Howard counties, told Schrader that senators had not yet received
data on how many vaccines were going to each county. Last Monday, Schrader said he was aiming to get that information by the end of the week.
Under further questioning from Lam, Schrader confirmed the state has entered into an emergency contract with the consulting firm Ernst & Young to help with vaccine distribution.
“They've already helped us on a number of things,” Schrader said. “They helped us to unravel some of the mysteries of the federal allocation and accounting system.”
Lam asked Schrader whether the contract was worth about $11 million. Schrader said he “didn’t want to speculate” and would follow up on the actual cost. Lam said it seemed the cost was “fairly substantial.”
“I would like to know what they're actually doing,” Lam said. “If they've been working with us for the last couple weeks, it doesn't look like our rankings have changed that much in terms of vaccine administration.”
The state also is launching a new phone line for vaccine appointments. The number is 1-855-634-6829.