Amid a distribution crisis that has left Marylanders struggling to access the COVID-19 vaccine, two regional Maryland hospital systems have offered vaccinations to their board members — a move that abides by the state’s prioritization standards, according to health and government officials.
A spokesman for Anne Arundel Medical Center said it offered vaccinations to its 21 board members and the 11 board members of Luminis Health, its parent company, after it finished vaccinating its employees, a spokesperson for the health care system confirmed in an email.
The Greater Baltimore Medical Center, which operates multiple locations in and around Baltimore County, also said it had offered vaccinations to its board members. Spokesman John Lazarou said in a statement that GBMC “prioritized staff and providers at the highest risk before offering shots to others.”
Spokespeople for four other major hospital systems in the state, the University System of Maryland Medical System, Johns Hopkins Medicine, MedStar Health and LifeBridge Health, told The Daily Record that they had not offered vaccines to board members who do not otherwise qualify due to age, occupation or medical history.
“Board members are not considered health care workers,” a statement from Hopkins said. “The only Johns Hopkins Medicine Board members who have received vaccines from JHM are those who met the criteria in the jurisdiction where our hospitals are located. They have the same access to vaccine appointments as all other eligible individuals.”
AAMC’s spokesperson, Justin McLeod, stated that “because they are integral to our ability to fulfill our mission, we opened registration to our volunteers, including board members, auxilians, and patient and family advisers, after making it available to all employees.”
When asked to clarify whether this included employees who were eligible to work from home, the spokesperson reiterated that “all employees” were vaccinated prior to the vaccine being made available to the AAMC and Luminis Health boards.
Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said the governor’s office is aware that AAMC offered these vaccines.
“Hospitals have indicated that having their senior leaders take the vaccine has helped increase uptake among their workforce,” he said in an email. He did not respond to additional requests for comment.
Like AAMC, GBMC stated that board members were vaccinated due to the fact that they are “volunteers” within the hospital system and were inoculated alongside low-risk workers, a decision which the hospital system stated was approved by the Maryland Department of Health.
GBMC has three boards, including the health system’s board, the board for Gilchrist Hospice Care and its philanthropy committee. Members of all three were offered the vaccine — a total of 68 people, some of whom serve on more than one board.
“(Board members) are integral to our health care system’s operations, so we included them since many of the members qualified because they are health care providers or because of their age,” Lazarou said, adding that some board members were inoculated at other vaccination sites.
McLeod, AAMC’s spokesperson, also noted that some board members declined the vaccine and that the medical center did not keep specific track of how many accepted.
“We don’t have the ability to track which board members have taken it and when second doses are scheduled. We do not distinguish or track board members’ appointment times and confirmations,” he said.
Both GBMC and AAMC are now vaccinating eligible members of the community as supply allows.
Daniel Sulmasy, a professor of biomedical ethics and director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, believes that vaccinating board members at this stage of the inoculation program is unethical regardless of whether it’s allowed in a particular state or jurisdiction.
“If you’ve got a 55-year-old, healthy board member who is not involved in direct patient care and is not in one of the risk groups that is already eligible, then they’re jumping the line, and all of us know from our childhoods that that is wrong,” he said. “You don’t cut in front of people in the grocery store … and you don’t cut off people who are more needy just because you have money, power, influence or connections.”
Offering board members vaccines “undermines faith in the whole process,” he continued. “We know there is scarcity and it’s difficult to face scarcity, and we have to have fair rules for allocating (the vaccine).”
Neither GBMC nor AAMC cited the desire to increase uptake among workers as a reason for vaccinating their boards. The governor’s office did not respond to a question regarding why it believed that senior leadership receiving the vaccine causes such an increase.
According to Nilesh Kalyanaraman, health officer for Anne Arundel County, where AAMC is located, hospitals are permitted to vaccinate board members because the priority groups are based on industry, not specific roles within that industry.
Because hospitals were counted in group 1A, Kalyanaraman said, it was up to the hospitals themselves, not state guidance, to decide how to allocate vaccines among their employees.
“We’re seeing that across other sectors too. In public safety, it’s the same thing. You think firefighters and policemen, but there are other people who provide support that qualify, too,” he said. “I get how that can be very frustrating … but when you take that sector approach, you get higher-risk and lower-risk workers.”
AAMC and GBMC follow others around the country that have faced scrutiny after vaccinating board members and trustees. Recently, reports have come out of health organizations in Kentucky, New Jersey and Rhode Island distributing vaccines to their boards. The University of Rochester Medical Center issued an apology last week for offering board members, donors and others with connections to the university preferential access to the vaccine.
In addition, reports have emerged nationwide of board members’ and other hospital executives’ families who otherwise would not qualify being allowed to skip the line for the vaccine.
GBMC stated that it did not offer special prioritization to board members’ families. While AAMC did not specify whether board members’ families were offered the chance to be vaccinated, McLeod did note that its board members were allowed to make appointments “as part of our workforce,” and that those appointments were nontransferable.
According to Maryland’s COVID-19 tracker, around 9% of the state’s population has received the first dose of the shot, and 3% have received both doses. While the state is currently in vaccine phase 1C, Anne Arundel County’s health department has not progressed past 1B, which limits vaccinations to those 75 and older, essential health care workers, first responders, public health staff, the judiciary, nursing home staff and residents, and correctional facility staff and residents.
Hospitals in the county are permitted to move into phase 1C but are asked to prioritize the first two phases.
The county lags very slightly behind the state in vaccinations; 8% of county residents have received the first shot and 3% have received both. But just this week, Anne Arundel faced unexpected delays, with the county receiving 7,000 fewer vaccines than planned in recent weeks.
The county’s health department was forced to cancel two days of second-dose vaccine clinics on Tuesday and Wednesday, rescheduling the appointments to this coming Saturday.
Baltimore County’s vaccination rates are slightly higher than the state’s overall, with 11% of the population having received their first dose and 3% having received both.
“We know that people want it, and I think that’s the concern about who’s eligible and who’s not,” Kalyanaraman said, encouraging people to be patient, but to get the vaccine when it becomes available to them.