WASHINGTON — Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan revealed his state’s plans to make its vaccine distribution process more equitable Thursday. The plan’s rollout comes as leaders from Maryland’s most populated county continue to demand the state work with them to create a new local mass vaccination site.
Gov. Hogan was joined by Brigadier General Janeen Birckhead and Lieutenant Governor Boyd Rutherford in Annapolis to announce the release of the Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force Operations Plan. Under the plan, the task force will work with all the local health departments in the state to focus on their individual efforts to vaccinate underserved populations.
The governor says the task force will evaluate each county’s plan while handling vaccine-related proposals and requests from non-profit, faith-based, and community organizations working to serve vulnerable populations.
“Today, to build on all of the months of comprehensive effort, we are announcing the very first vaccine equity operations plan of any state in America to further address health disparities and the issue of equity and to get more vaccines to people in every community who need them most,” Hogan said.
The task force is also expected to consider certain socioeconomic variables to identify communities and individuals who may be vulnerable. They are included below:
- Population over 65 years old
- Population with an annual income below $49,000
- Unemployment rate
- Population older than 25 years old without a high school diploma
- Minority composition of the community
- Single-parent households
- Housing with more than one person per room
- Households without access to a vehicle
- Total COVID cases
- Amount of population receiving at least the first dose
“We call on each local jurisdiction to appoint an equity Task Force advisor to work with Gen. Birckhead and her team and develop to develop their individual plans for equitable access to vaccines in their local communities,” Hogan said.
Over the last week, Montgomery County leaders have been vocal with concerns that Maryland’s vaccine distribution process is currently not equitable. The Montgomery County Council sent Gov. Hogan a letter Wednesday demanding communities of color be made a priority in the vaccination process.
According to the Montgomery County Health Department, 66% of pre-registrants for vaccines in the county have been white, while only 43% of Montgomery County’s population is white.
Meanwhile, only 17% of Montgomery County’s vaccine pre-registrants are Black or Latino. Those two ethnicities make up 39% of Montgomery County’s population.
“That is the epitome of the problem,” Councilmember Will Jawando said. “Not only do you see people that can access and scour the internet for the sites that are available, you see other examples in the extreme case, when you don't have an equity plan and you don't have a state mandate to focus on those most hardest hit by the disease, which we know are Black and Latino residents, frontline workers, you get these types of things that can happen. And, it's just unacceptable.”
Jawando pointed out retail outlets and pharmacies do not have a set protocol requiring them to make their vaccine process racially equitable.
The Montgomery County Council said it recently learned one retail outlet pulled its vaccines from a part of the county with a vulnerable population to place them in another outlet in a more affluent area.
“It just underscores the problem with what I call the vaccine Hunger Games,” Jawando said.
In order to address inequity, the council’s letter specifically asked Hogan to make sure pharmacies and private providers make racial equity a priority while requiring them to be fully transparent about the race, age and zip codes of their vaccine recipients on a weekly basis.
The county also called on the state to coordinate with the local government and health department to select a mass vaccine site in Montgomery County.
“We’re near the top, almost every week of how quickly we get shots into arms," Jawando said. "If you want to vaccinate a lot of people, do it in a county who has proven they can do that."
Other Montgomery County leaders have also called on Maryland to help it with the formation of a mass vaccination site.
"We’re ready to do a mass vaccination site in Montgomery County and if the governor is having issues with logistics and people to do that, all we need is the vaccines,” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said. “If we’re provided the vaccines, we’ll open up a mass vaccination site in the county."
Gov. Hogan’s office said Thursday it has asked every Maryland county to develop an equity plan.
Hogan’s Communications Director, Mike Ricci, said while counties like Anne Arundel have already developed an equity plan, Montgomery County has yet to send one to the state. In an email, Ricci also said Montgomery County is free to open its own mass vaccination site.
“Some counties opened their own mass vaccination clinics months ago,” Ricci wrote. “So, it’s perfectly reasonable for Montgomery to do so.”
But even some health officials have criticized the state’s efforts in Montgomery County.
On Tuesday, Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said Marylanders should not be surprised to see cosmetic surface-level efforts to address equity result in disparate outcomes.
“I don't think that is an equitable framework,” he said. “I don't think it's a fair framework and hopefully, there'll be some critical self-reflection to think about how to move forward and move past this.”
Gayles, who mentioned he could be putting his job at risk by speaking out as a state employee, said local officials should not be afraid to comment on the policies coming out of Annapolis.
“At the end of the day, it's about accountability and effective leadership and standing up and being able to acknowledge when there are problems in a system,” he said. “And, if things aren't working, you have to acknowledge and say maybe we should change the approach that we're taking and do something differently.”
WUSA9 also reached out to the governor’s office regarding Gayle’s comments. We have yet to receive a response.
Hogan did say Thursday the state is rolling out new initiatives to address equity in other parts of the states. He said the vaccine task force will partner with First Baptist Church in Glenarden and University of Maryland Capital Region Health to create a large, community-focused vaccination site.
The state also plans to roll out mobile vaccination clinics in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.
“We're not where we need to be with the Black community or the Hispanic community and so we're continuing to take every effort to ramp that up,” he said.
The governor’s office added Maryland’s first four mass vaccination sites are in communities with large minority populations, including Prince George’s County, Charles County, and Baltimore City.