Maryland is shifting small amounts of coronavirus vaccine doses to private pharmacies as state health officials prepare for what they hope will be increased shipments later in the spring.
Acting Health Secretary Dennis Schrader said the decision was an effort to create a hybrid delivery system of private and government vaccination clinics. But the move to include a small number of private pharmacies including Walmart and Giant, mostly in western Maryland and the Eastern Shore, raised the ire of some lawmakers who say the decision is making it harder for people who have higher risks to get a shot.
“It’s not fair,” Sen. Addie Eckardt, an Eastern Shore Republican, said to Schrader during the first meeting of the Senate’s Vaccine Oversight Work Group.
Eckardt said shifting vaccine doses to private facilities is making it harder on local health departments.
“Our health department knows better where the people are in need than Walmart,” she said.
Additionally, Eckardt said, the public announcements about the program are drawing in people from other counties.
“You’ve created a problem,” she said. We now have more of a demand than we have a supply,” Eckardt told Schrader.
Schrader appeared Monday afternoon before the first meeting of the work group which was established last week to keep tabs on vaccination rollout efforts in Maryland.
Senate President Bill Ferguson said earlier this year that Schrader’s confirmation as the next state health secretary hinges on how well Maryland handles vaccination efforts.
Some figures presented by the Department of Legislative Services suggest that Maryland is performing below most states in vaccinating its population even as the state Monday moved to allow people in phase 1C to also receive shots. The opening of the first three phases brings the total number of people eligible to about 2 million.
Despite claims by Gov. Larry Hogan and others that the state is performing better than most states, an analysis by the Department of Legislative Services found that the state may be sitting on more than 50% of its doses.
Hogan announced the expansion of vaccination efforts to private pharmacies during a news conference 10 days ago. This week marks the first steps toward that effort.
Maryland is receiving about 72,000 per week, while Schrader and Hogan say the state is vaccinating more than 10,000 people a day on average.
Schrader told the work group that the pilot programs at 22 Giant pharmacy locations, three Martin’s locations in Washington and Allegany Counties, and 10 Walmarts, mostly in western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore, are an effort to prepare for the future when vaccines are expected to be more plentiful.
“We’re going to be relying on commercial clinics to help put shots in arms,” said Schrader. “We will be starting to build that infrastructure now.”
Schrader said the pharmacies are getting a small number of doses, in some cases about 100 total. The goal, he said, is to work out any kinks in the system before expanding to a larger rollout in the spring when there is more supply and the state looks to vaccinate larger portions of the population.
“We believe we need to do a mix (of commercial and government clinics),” said Schrader. “It’s not one of the other. We need to do a mix.”
Some lawmakers raised questions about whether the state is receiving its fair share of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines — the only two currently available.
Sen. Jim Rosapepe, D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel, estimated that the current allocation should be twice what the state is receiving based on Maryland’s percentage of the U.S. population.
“It doesn’t add up,” said Rosapepe.