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Baltimore Will Administer COVID-19 Vaccine Booster Shots, Starting Week Of Sept. 20

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Emily Sullivan/WYPR
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Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott speaks during a Thursday news conference.

Baltimore City will administer COVID-19 vaccination booster shots starting the week of Sept. 20 in accordance with new CDC guidelines, city officials said Thursday.

Like the first vaccination campaigns last winter, doses will be rolled out in phases that prioritize health care workers, first responders and public safety workers, Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said at a news conference.

“The health department is in the process of planning both a semi-permanent location for booster doses, as well as setting up vaccine access points in low vaccination coverage areas to provide those booster doses,” she said.

She said the semi-permanent booster shot facility will likely be similar to the city’s mobile vaccination clinics, which operate in 20 to 25 sites a week. Those clinics will also receive booster doses, she said.

The CDC released updated booster shot guidelines Wednesday, which recommend booster shots for all Americans who received a two-dose COVID-19 8 months after their second dose. U.S. health experts are still researching whether people who received the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine should receive a booster; Dzirasa said it’s likely that boosters will be required for one-shot vaccine doses.

The new guidelines come amid nationwide spikes in COVID-19 cases, which Dzirasa and health experts across the U.S. have attributed to the highly contagious delta variant.

Baltimore’s new case count has risen 471% over the last four weeks; the positivity rate is at 3.1%, a jump of 365% over the same time period. Though city ICU beds and acute care beds are at 85% and 88% respectively, new deaths are still low, mostly due to vaccines, Dzirasa said, and the large majority of hospitalized patients are unvaccinated.

“We are particularly concerned about increases in case counts among younger populations,” she said. “Data for the past week shows the highest incidence rates of COVID-19 cases occurring among those of the 20 to 29-year-old age group, with the second highest incidence rate among children under the age of 10, with increased hospitalizations of children due to COVID-19 being reported across the country.”

She urged unvaccinated city residents, especially parents or caretakers of children, to get vaccinated as soon as possible in order to protect themselves and their children from the virus.

As of Wednesday, 65% of adult city residents have received at least one dose of vaccine. About 54% of adults are fully vaccinated. An increasing number of African-American residents are getting vaccinated, Dzirasa said.

“Since July 1st, we have seen a 12.2% increase in the number of African-American city residents getting a first or single dose of vaccine,” she said. “This brings us to a total of 154,000 first or single doses among African-American city residents. To date, this equates to about 48% of all first or single doses of the vaccine in the city overall being among our African-American community.”

While the city is making progress, the coronavirus will remain dangerous and unpredictable until everyone is vaccinated, Mayor Brandon Scott said. He reinstated an indoor mask mandate earlier this month.

“The last thing that any of us want is to reenact further mandatory restrictions. But the reality is the only way to avoid this is for more people to get vaccinated,” the Democrat said. “People will continue to get sick and people will continue to die if we don't get more people vaccinated. So please take the necessary precautions to keep you and your family safe.”

The mayor also pushed back against comments his senior staffers made during a Wednesday hearing, where Dzirasa said the mayor is discussing a vaccine mandate for the city’s 14,000 employees and Chief Digital Officer Todd Carter said Baltimore has plans for a vaccine incentive program for the same group.

“Nothing is on my desk. Nothing is final,” Scott said. “Many things are on the table. We will discuss and take the best appropriate action.”

Scott and other city leaders have held vaccine clinics for city workers and encouraged them to get vaccinated, but have not mandated it. Dzirasa and Carter declined to answer questions from council members about the incentive program and potential vaccine requirement at the hearing.

At the news conference, Dzirasa said that about 60% of city employees have voluntarily reported being vaccinated.

The Baltimore Fire Officers Association’s Joshua Fannon told Scott in a letter earlier this month that a mandatory vaccine policy “would have substantial material change in working conditions. As such, it would be collective bargaining.”

Scott said the potential policy would not need to be bargained with city unions.

“We're always going to work with our partners and labor,” he said. “We're going to be having those discussions as we move towards making a decision.”

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.