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Racial Inequities Persist In State’s COVID-19 Vaccinations

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Racial inequities in COVID-19 vaccination rates persist in Maryland, despite a rise in overall vaccination rate.

At Monday’s weekly senate vaccine oversight workgroup hearing, Dennis Schrader, the acting state health secretary, announced new strategies to improve equity in vaccination rates. 

As he did, he took heat from Sen. Mary Washington, a Baltimore Democrat, over Gov. Larry Hogan’s claim last week that the city had gotten more vaccines than it was entitled to.

“When it comes to lives I believe that words really matter,” Washington said, demanding an apology. “And the fact that our governor would engage in such language that is frankly tone deaf, is flat out incorrect and is divisive.” 

She said Schrader and the Hogan administration have been unwilling to take responsibility for vaccine inequities. 

“We have gone through this week by week,” she said. "You blame others, you blame hesitancy, you blame a contractor and now you are trying to imply that somehow Baltimore City is taking up vaccines that should go elsewhere.” 

Schrader did not apologize.

“Madam Senator, you’re asking me a political question and I’m not a politician,” Schrader said. “I’m focused on process and facts.” 

 

Washington denied her question was political and charged that the Hogan administration was spreading misinformation. 

“If language and discourse like this continues from the top, that is actually undermining your activities. Your efforts to build confidence in the community,” Washington said. 

State data shows that three predominately Black jurisdictions — Prince George’s and Charles counties and Baltimore City — have the lowest vaccination rates in the state. 

 

According to data from the state’s chief innovation officer Michael Powell, states with the highest percentage of vaccinated residents also have a higher percentage of white residents.

 

Sen. Ron Young, a Frederick County Democrat, demanded to know why the state wasn’t doing more for residents of color. 

“Why can’t you get them to the communities where the minorities are?” Young asked. “You’re making a lot of people drive all over the state. There are places straight in those communities you can put them but you’re not.” 

Schrader said he wasn’t sure how to answer Young’s question, and argued that distribution was equitable based on county population. 

Gen. Janeen Birckhead, who leads the governor’s Equity Task Force for vaccinations, said the state was using mobile sites that could go into those communities. 

Among the strategies Schrader discussed was a move at the mass vaccination site at the Baltimore Convention Center to target zip codes most affected by COVID-19. The state also has begun texting appointment offers to eligible Prince George’s residents. 

 

Schrader said that texting yielded a 50% response rate. Birckhead said this would help increase vaccinations in Prince George’s, which continues to have the lowest vaccination rate in Maryland. 

“I don't believe that it was an issue of hesitancy,” Birckhead said. “I believe it's an issue of technology, meeting the citizens where they are.” 

In previous vaccine oversight hearings, Schrader said hesitancy was likely the main factor in the county’s low vaccination rates. 

Schrader also discussed plans for the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The state is set to get 49,600 initial doses of the vaccine this week. Those doses will be going to all providers. 

Sen. Clarence Lam, a Democrat representing parts of Baltimore and Howard counties, urged Schrader to target vulnerable populations with the new vaccine. 

 

Schrader said the White House and the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not want them to do that. Lam pushed back, suggesting the federal government may issue further guidance. 

“It’s only a single dose vaccine, and so may be easier to target to harder to reach populations if there’s risk that they would not be able to show up for their second dose,” Lam said. “So I urge you to think about that a little bit further.” 

Schrader said that distribution of the J&J vaccine will be uneven over the next two weeks, and will likely be lower than the initial 49,600 dose distribution.

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