ANNAPOLIS — Margaret Garcia was looking to get a coronavirus vaccination when a relative found one in an unexpected place — the Michael E. Busch Branch of the Anne Arundel County Public Library.
Garcia’s stepdaughter, an employee of a local restaurant, learned of the clinic — an unusual one for libraries in the state and nationally — when the branch manager came in looking to spread the word. Garcia, a Queen Anne’s County resident with a number of medical conditions, and her husband and sister were registered and waiting for an opening.
“I’m glad I did it at the library because the lines at the major places where they were doing it at, no, I couldn’t do that,” Garcia said. “So the library was a true blessing for me It was like walk in and it was there and only had to wait the 15 minutes. You didn’t have to wait in line. It was very friendly there. It was truly a blessing.”
Garcia and her husband and sister all received their first doses in March and returned in April to get their second and final doses.
The March 26 event at the Annapolis branch named for the former longtime speaker of the House of Delegates, was held in partnership with Annapolis nonprofit Blessed in Tech Ministries, was the first in Maryland to serve as a vaccination site. At the time, Anne Arundel was one of only five library systems in the nation offering COVID-19 vaccinations, according to Gloria Harberts, who manages the branch.
“We were trying to reach the Hispanic community, the African American community, those with low incomes. The focus of these clinics was for people who can’t drive, who might not be able to get time off from work for extended periods of time and needed some place quick to go, a trusted safe place to go,” Harberts said.
No flyers were posted for that first clinic. No emails were sent out announcing the event.
Instead, library staff reached out to local churches and organizations serving minority and underserved communities including a local Hispanic market to spread the word. In three days, the staff – many of them speak Spanish — filled the 100 spots at that initial clinic.
“We were trying to reach people who don’t typically come to the library, Harberts said. “They still came here because somehow they have a positive experience, somebody knew this was a trusted resource for them.”
Harberts personally spoke to Garcia’s stepdaughter at a local restaurant and help her confirm appointments for her grandparents.
Of those who initially registered for that first clinic, 94 people showed up for that first event and 92 returned on April 26 to receive their second dose and become fully vaccinated.
Since then, the system has continued to host clinics throughout the county, including at a branch inside the Westfield Mall and another scheduled for Saturday in Deale.
Cathy Hollerbach, chief of public services and branch management for the system, said the idea really grew as part of an effort to fill a need in the community at the time during the pandemic when libraries were faces with restrictions on use. Many branches had already started to work with local health departments to offer testing or food banks and Wi-Fi access in branch parking lots when vaccines became available in December.
It was then that library staffers began assisting users who lacked internet access or were inexperienced or navigating the online appointments process with registering for the vaccinations, including helping some establish email accounts in order to sign up for clinics.
Hollerbach said that effort grew into an idea of hosting the clinics as more doses became available.
“Some churches were holding (clinics) and the library is trusted as well and we can reach out to our communities — people who can just walk to the library who, in a lot of cases, may not have access to M&T Bank Stadium or Six Flags.”
The clinics, which grew of a necessity driven by the pandemic, represent an expansion of a growing number of social services being offered at libraries over the past nearly three decades, from helping visitors apply for government services to providing coats, clothing, personal hygiene products and filling other community needs.
“We’ve seen that evolution,” Hollerbach said. “One of the turning points was the internet. When we got the internet, it brought in a whole new group of people who were using the library in a different way and we were thrilled with that but we were also like, ‘Oh my gosh, look at all these people. What are we going to do? What do they need? How are we going to serve them?’
“That was a real turning point where we realized we still care a lot about books. We still care a lot about story time and those traditional library things. Those things are not going anywhere. People thought there would eventually be no more libraries because of Google, but we’re actually so much more than that,” she said.
Similar clinics at the Brooklyn Park branch earlier this year drew 88 people. Another in Severn — held May 8 — drew 42 people.
The clinics at the library fit into the county health department’s overall strategy as it shifts to a more targeted, community focus.
“We’re looking to situate clinics where people are going and they happen to get vaccinated as opposed to putting it somewhere people are going to get vaccinated,” Anne Arundel County Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman said.
“The libraries are part of the fabric of the community,” he said. “People go there, people are familiar with them, but I think more importantly they have a lot of different programs and services that they offer… People go there for different reasons and so vaccinations really kind of fit in nicely with their mission of just providing another service for the community and obviously, vaccinations are the topic of the day.”
Where as the state was once dispensing hundreds of thousands of doses per day, now the state is giving out under 50,000.
Anne Arundel health officials report that as much as 80% of their daytime hours at large sites were going unused at some large sites.
The clinics at the library are seeing similar trends.
The focus in the county is moving to smaller, targeted community clinics with evening and weekend hours. With vaccines more plentiful, the library clinics now attempt to vaccinate as many as possible in the two hours in which they operate.
The clinic at the mall attracted about a half dozen people in the first hour of operation, mostly mall employees.
Annapolis resident Delilah Edwards, 40, came in for her vaccination — and a book — after seeing a flyer about the clinic.
“I’ve always felt comfortable in libraries. I didn’t feel like it was going to be super crowded because not a lot of people do come to the library. And plus it was the type of vaccination they were offering.
Edwards said she was specifically looking for the Moderna vaccine, the same one given to her husband, who is a firefighter.
“He said this was the one to get,” Edwards said.
The local clinics supported by the Anne Arundel County Health Department are a small component of an overall effort to expand access to the COVID-19 vaccines to the community, especially minority populations.
Currently, the state operates a dozen mass vaccination sites. Doses are also available at hundreds of doctors’ offices and pharmacies and mobile clinics around the state.
The unique clinics at the library could become more important as the state expects to close those mass vaccination sites as fewer people seek doses.
“We’ve already started making that pivot,” Kalyanaraman said. “We started a couple weeks ago expanding the number of smaller community vaccine sites and downscaling our current large vaccination sites.”
Currently about 65% of eligible Marylanders have received at least one dose of a vaccine. President Joe Biden has set a goal of reaching 70% nationally by July 4.
Gov. Larry Hogan wants the state to reach that goal by Memorial Day and has promised to lift requirements to wear masks indoors once the state reaches that goal.
“It’s getting harder and harder,” Hogan told reporters Thursday.