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Md. nonprofits urge Hogan to let them help vaccination effort

FILE - In this July 27, 2020, file photo, nurse Kathe Olmstead prepares a shot that is part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, N.Y. Moderna Inc. says it will ask U.S. and European regulators to allow emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine as new study results confirm the shots offer strong protection. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)

Maryland’s nonprofits have asked the Hogan administration to let them assist in the vaccination distribution effort. (AP File Photo/Hans Pennink)

Over 500 signatories, including 221 nonprofit organizations, have signed a letter calling on Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to allow the state’s nonprofits to take a more active role in the vaccine distribution process.

“Nonprofits are particularly well suited to serve communities experiencing barriers to vaccination,” the letter reads.

Black and Latino people have received vaccines at disproportionately lower rates than white people, despite recent polling showing that Black Marylanders are not significantly more hesitant to be vaccinated than the rest of the state. State health officials initially suggested that minority communities were not getting vaccinated due to “lack of demand.” New initiatives to increase equitable access to the vaccine have since launched.

The letter, which was sent by Maryland Nonprofits, a nonprofit advocacy group, outlines some of the barriers to vaccine access that nonprofits could assist with, such as providing vaccine information in a variety of languages and transporting people to and from vaccine sites. The close relationships nonprofits, especially local and community-centric organizations, have with the populations they serve also makes them uniquely equipped to provide these services.

“Nonprofits and faith-based organizations have the connections, trust and knowledge of their local communities and must be provided resources and a regular forum with (the) Maryland Department of Health to participate fully in vaccine access work,” the letter reads. “This is a race against the clock to get to zero infections in Maryland.”

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Hogan, said that several community and faith-based organizations are already working with the the Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force “to get vaccines to hard-to-reach areas and underserved communities” and told the letter’s signatories to reach out to the task force if they wanted to become involved in these efforts.

Up to this point, some nonprofit leaders’ attempts to reach the governor have gone unanswered, according to Heather Iliff, the president and CEO of Maryland Nonprofits, an organization that represents nonprofits throughout the state and that sent the letter.

Iliff emphasized that many nonprofits, not just nonprofit hospitals and health care organizations, want the opportunity to assist with vaccine distribution efforts. Meal distribution organizations, for example, each serve hundreds of Maryland residents every day, many of whom are part of the populations that are being under-vaccinated. Those sites would be an ideal place to provide residents with information about the vaccine, dispel untrue rumors about the vaccine’s safety and even set them up with appointments.

Heather Bruskin, executive director of Montgomery County Food Council, a small nonprofit that works on food system issues that signed Maryland Nonprofits’ letter, noted that state and local governments have successfully partnered with meal sites throughout the pandemic to make COVID-19 tests, voter registration booths and census outreach available within underserved communities.

This tried-and-true model typically involves the government sending a team to set up alongside a meal distribution site, allowing people to easily get tested, register to vote or learn about the census after picking up food.

“Those are places where they (already) know to go,” Bruskin said. “So wouldn’t it be wonderful if, when they arrived at a food assistance site, they had access to sign up for a vaccine appointment or, even better, maybe even get the vaccine that day?”

United Way of Central Maryland and United Way of Frederick County also signed the letter. For Franklyn Baker, president and CEO of United Way of Central Maryland, improving equitable vaccine distribution efforts aligns with the organization’s goal of making sure Marylanders are equipped with their basic needs.

The organization isn’t planning any large-scale vaccine awareness or outreach efforts, Baker said, but United Way has already begun working to “fill in the gaps” in some of the areas outlined in the letter — the organization’s 211 phone line can help residents coordinate free transportation to and from a vaccine site, for example.

“This vaccination distribution and equity issue is an opportunity for us to leverage all of our possible resources in the various jurisdictions we serve to a lot of the key drivers,” Baker said.

Iliff hopes the letter will achieve two key things. Firstly, she hopes the state will set up a series of monthly — if not more frequent — town halls between government decision-makers and the Maryland nonprofit community where nonprofits can both receive updates about the state of the vaccine and provide on-the-ground information about how the vaccination efforts are being received in communities.

“What we’re looking for is a two-way conversation between the government and this huge sector of people who are ready to help,” Iliff said. There are over 32,000 nonprofit organizations in Maryland and nonprofit-sector employees make up around 10% of the state’s workforce, according to Maryland Nonprofits.

Ricci did not respond a question regarding whether the Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force would consider holding town halls with the nonprofit community.

She also hopes that the governor will use funds from the RELIEF Act and the American Rescue Plan to support nonprofits that are ready to take an active role in distributing vaccines. While she anticipates that some health care-oriented nonprofits will receive funding, she doesn’t want other nonprofits, like meal distribution organizations, to be overlooked.


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