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Governor Announces 'Vaccine Equity' Plan, And Criticizes Baltimore's Vaccine Rollout

Rachel Baye
Maryland National Guard Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead describes the state's new "vaccine equity operations plan" at a press conference Thursday.

In the wake of criticism about low vaccination rates among minority communities, Gov. Larry Hogan has announced a new “vaccine equity operations plan” to inoculate Black and Latino residents against COVID-19. The plan relies on pop-up vaccine clinics in communities where residents have had trouble getting or have not sought appointments at other sites.

At a press conference Thursday afternoon, Maryland National Guard Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead described a clinic last month at New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore as an example of the types of events the state anticipates. On behalf of the state, Safeway workers administered 50 vaccines at the clinic’s “soft launch,” she said.


“Now that the community is comfortable with the process and set up, on 6 March we will be back in Baltimore at New Shiloh Baptist Church for a second clinic,” Birckhead said.


At the second clinic, the state plans to administer 250 first doses of the Moderna vaccine. They will be back to give the second doses later this month.


To pick the locations for the clinics, Birckhead said the state mines data from sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Census Bureau and the state Health Department.


Churches and other houses of worship are a key part of this plan, said Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford.


“These houses of worship, as we all know, are places of refuge,” Rutherford said. “It's these community-centered models that will build confidence in vaccines and the vaccination process and provide more points of access for the COVID-19 vaccine.”

The state also plans to use mobile vaccination sites on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland.


During the press conference, Hogan responded to criticism from Democratic lawmakers over lower vaccination rates among Black and Latino communities — the communities that COVID-19 has hit the hardest.


“From day one, Maryland has made equitable access to vaccines a top priority, and has continued to take a whole series of actions to make more vaccines more available to underserved communities,” Hogan said.


The governor said much of the criticism directed his way is actually misplaced frustration with the nationwide scarcity of vaccines.


Hogan also questioned some of the Baltimore City Health Department’s decisions around vaccine distribution.


“At their request, we've transferred 30 times doses away from the health department, out to other providers, because they weren't utilizing them, and we thought other providers could get them into the community,” Hogan said. “We also tried to send $9 million to the city to try to help them with their vaccine equity effort, which they turned down.”


Baltimore City officials say both claims are misleading at best.


In response to Hogan’s comments, City Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa said the city health department has never refused vaccine doses. Rather, the city transferred doses to community partners to better target specific, vulnerable populations.


“They allow us to directly vaccinate target populations without forcing residents to enter into a Hunger Games-style competition through the state's PrepMod system and the maze of additional registration and interest forms found across different health care systems and created by community groups,” Dzirasa said.


As to the $9 million, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said the city declined the state’s offer to pass on federal funds, choosing instead to get reimbursement directly from the federal government. 


“This is a conversation that is nothing but a distraction tactic, a Jedi Mind trick, to cover up the completely inequitable vaccine distribution process that we have,” Scott said. “While the governor continues to go back and forth about petty politics, people are dying from the virus and our Black and brown residents, the same residents who were already facing grave health disparities, who are already dying from this virus at a higher rate, who have the least access to transit and healthcare, we understand that they are being left behind by this vaccine rollout, and the state has refused to this day to be a true partner and act with us.”


Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
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