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Accountabilityby Fern Shen7:05 pmMar 15, 20210

“The city bureaucracy is so encumbered,” Covid clinic organizers say

Despite being unable to help with a West Baltimore clinic for seniors on short notice, the Health Department says it is “in firm support of community-based vaccination”

After a pop-up Covid vaccine clinic for seniors on Saturday got no assistance from the city’s Health Department, a spokesman responded today by saying the agency “stands in firm support of community-based vaccination efforts and continues to work to provide vaccinations as rapidly and equitably as possible.”

While the Department’s statement offered numerous details about Baltimore’s vaccination outreach efforts, it made no reference to the organizers’ specific complaint:

Why hadn’t the city agreed to help with the clinic, which drew a throng of seniors, who stood in a line that snaked around the block outside the West Baltimore site?

“The city bureaucracy is so encumbered, it’s like a swamp,” said Liz Briscoe, part of Sarah Matthews’ Vaccine Empowerment Team. “They just couldn’t deal with the quick turn around.”

Last week, Matthews learned that Walgreens was offering hundreds of doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but her group only had three days to pull together a weekend event to distribute them.

“Takes at least a week”

Amid widely-reported racial inequities in vaccine distribution, the team targeted African-American senior citizens, choosing as a location the Masonic Temple on Eutaw Place.

In an email Matthews shared with The Brew, Briscoe asked a Health Department official if the city “would be willing to provide funds for transportation for residents who would like to take advantage of this clinic?”

“If not,” she had continued, “do you have any connections with Uber and/or Lyft who are providing free transportation for Baltimore County residents to vaccine clinics?”

Saying he could do neither, Assistant Commissioner for Aging and Care Services James Macgill, added, “I have been working on this and should be able to move forward soon. But for the Saturday clinic, I recommend you reach out to AIM.”

(Briscoe, who used to head Action in Maturity, a non-profit transportation program, knew such transportation was doable but would on a weekend involve paying drivers time-and-a-half.)

Could the city share its list of older adults on the waiting list to get the vaccine, so they could send them notice of the upcoming vaccine event?

No, Macgill said, citing privacy issues.

At another point in the email, he chided the group. “It would have been helpful if Walgreen’s had provided more notice,” Macgill observed. “In our experience, organizing these clinics takes at least a week.”

“It was an eye-opener to them that this delivery method works”  – Liz Briscoe.

Briscoe said Matthews was “deeply disappointed” by this response. “I mean, she wanted help with things like disinfectants and wipes and clipboards.”

She pointed out that, as a member of the Baltimore City Commission on Aging, Matthews is a credible person to make such an ask.

Briscoe is also involved in advocating for seniors, serving as a coordinator of the Affinity Group on Aging for the Maryland Philanthropic Network. She noted that some in city government did provide help, including the central hotline for senior services MAPS (Maryland Access Point), which spread the word ahead of the Saturday clinic.

But overall, she said, the government seemed unable to grasp the potential of the community-based event being planned.

“It was an eye-opener to them that this delivery method works,” Briscoe noted.

Baltimore Health Dept Organization Chart

Good Samaritans

Reflecting on the controversy today, Matthews she had “just thought there might be a discretionary petty cash fund for emergencies.”

She was hoping for a small stipend to help pay for food and water, assistance with printing the permission forms and, possibly, some help with the cost to use the sprawling Masonic Temple building for a day.

“That place charges $600 an hour. In the end, they just ate the cost,” she said. Volunteers paid for many supplies out of their pockets, while state Sen. Antonio Hayes’ office took care of some of the printing, and she stayed late to help the building staff clean up.

The clinic had vaccinated most of the seniors by mid-afternoon, but continued to serve neighborhood people of all ages who stopped in, as well as a number of city employees who were afraid of exposure on their jobs, but hadn’t yet received their shot from the Health Department.

“We said ‘yes’ to them all, and it was a bit chaotic,” said Matthews who says more than 1,000 people were vaccinated, adjusting down an earlier estimate.

Dealing With Disparity

The pop-up vaccination success story came as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is under pressure to correct racial and geographic inequities in vaccine distribution and Baltimore’s mayor, Brandon Scott, has been denouncing the state for shortchanging the city.

In response today, Hogan announced that the state-run mass vaccination sites will set aside thousands of appointments each week for residents of Baltimore and other jurisdictions where the clinics are located.

As for the city’s own efforts to get the vaccine into the arms of residents, Health Department spokesman Adam Abadir outlined the agency’s accomplishments and future plans in an email to The Brew:

Since launching mobile vaccination efforts, the Health Department has held 26 mobile events, providing more than 2,200 Baltimore City residents with at least 1 dose. Where data is known, 80% of those vaccinated were Black, and 85% were over 60.

Additionally, the Health Department has pre-registered more than 20,000 older adults who are City residents through its MAP Call Center and pre-registration link and has reached out to and referred everyone on the list for appointments. This is in addition to the more than 17,000 first and second doses administered so far at the City’s mass vaccination POD site.

With additional federal dollars now available for vaccination at the local level, the Health Department will be working to provide grants for community-based vaccination clinic for groups to apply for funding and assistance. This will ensure public dollars used for vaccination events are tracked, and that scarce resources are used to enhance equitable distribution of vaccine in Baltimore City.

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