Conversations on equitable distribution and vaccinating kids were at the forefront of the Maryland Senate Vaccine Oversight Work Group meeting on Monday. The work group, which Senate President Bill Ferguson (D – Baltimore City) convened in January 2021, monitors the COVID-19 vaccine distribution in the state and discusses efforts to ensure efficiency and equitable access.
Since their last meeting in September, which mainly focused on reopening schools, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the Pfizer – BioNTech vaccine for children aged 5-11. The approval caused an uptick in vaccine doses distributed in the state, according to Michael Powell, director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. While the state averaged approximately 7,000 shots a day over the last few months, numbers rose to 12,000 a day as of this week.
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The latest vaccine approval comes as children under nine years old surpassed adults and seniors as the age group with the highest case rates in the state. Since the approval, Powell said approximately 60,000 kids in Maryland are vaccinated, which is 11.5% of the age group.
COVID cases have slightly decreased in Maryland since schools opened in September. Powell said as of this week, there are approximately 500 hospitalizations for COVID-related illnesses, compared to 1,000 during the Delta surge in the late summer and early fall.
In a presentation to work group members, Maryland Department of Health (MDH) Secretary Dennis Schrader detailed the department’s ongoing work to transform school-based health centers into accessible vaccination sites for kids.
“We’re analyzing the current state of school-based health centers. There are 90 of them as you know. We’re looking at how they’re put together, who’s servicing them, what the budgets are … [the vaccine] was mostly being administered as a grant program within [the Maryland State Department of Education], and as we move it over to the health department, we’re going to have a much more operational focus, particularly with Medicaid.”
Equitable vaccine distribution
For much of the Delta surge, COVID cases were highest among African American Marylanders. Although overall case rates have generally declined for all ethnicities, Powell pointed out that since early October, cases are now highest among white Marylanders.
Schrader said around 66% of new COVID cases in the state were among unvaccinated individuals. He noted a particular concern: Medicaid recipients made up more than two thirds of the unvaccinated population.
Senator Mary Washington (D – Baltimore City) urged the department to adjust its vaccine distribution plan to address the disparities brought to light.
“In the early days, we talked about this balance between targeting and speed. In the early days, it seemed that the office was very focused on the speed [of vaccine distribution]. Then we found out that speed resulted in increasing disparities. I think it would be good for us to look at that.”
Aside from focusing on vaccinations at school-based health centers for Medicaid recipients, Schrader said MDH is using Medicaid data to identify zip codes with the lowest vaccination rates, and is working with the Vaccine Equity Task Force to direct mobile vaccine clinics to those areas.
Booster dose availability
MDH’s other focus is distributing booster shots to all eligible Marylanders. Currently, eligible recipients include: adults 65 years and older who received their second shot at least six months ago (Pfizer and Moderna) or two months ago (Johnson and Johnson), adults 18 and over in a “high-risk occupation” or with a comorbidity or underlying medical conditions. The department is still waiting for a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to provide boosters to the general public.
Schrader said the state currently has over 718,000 booster shots available, as Maryland kept its stock of vaccines in-state rather than sending them back to out-of-state sources.
For more information on the vaccine and where to get vaccinated, visit covidvax.maryland.gov or call 1-855-MD-GOVAX.