The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Covid booster shots alongside jackpots at Maryland casinos? Yep.

Larry Gaines receives a coronavirus booster shot at a vaccine clinic being held at Maryland's Live! Casino & Hotel in Hanover. (Allison Shelley for The Washington Post)

Larry Gaines removed his gray sweatshirt, rolled up his sleeve and whispered above the otherworldly burble of chiming slot machines that drifted in from the casino floor.

“Make it quick,” he said. “I don’t like needles.”

Gaines stared impassively as a health-care worker pumped a booster dose of Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine into his arm. The 65-year-old Baltimore resident had put off getting his third shot, but when he heard that a clinic would be operating at Maryland’s Live! Casino and Hotel, he figured there were worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon.

“I say, ‘You know what? I got an excuse to go to the casino,’” Gaines said as he sat in a windowless lounge that smelled of rubbing alcohol, waiting the obligatory 15 minutes after his injection in case of side effects. “And so far I’m up $80.”

The event at the Hanover casino was part of the latest effort by Maryland officials to entice those who have not yet received a booster dose of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, which have proven effective in shoring up the immune system against covid-19 — including new variants — as protection conferred by earlier doses wanes. About 74 percent of people in Maryland are vaccinated, but less than half of that group have been boosted.

To increase those figures, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is relying, among other things, on his constituents’ interest in games of chance. The state is already running a lottery that will eventually give out $2 million to those who get boosters. And this weekend vaccine clinics opened at Live! and the Ocean Downs Casino outside Ocean City. By the end of February, six casinos across the state are scheduled to offer booster doses.

A steady trickle of people showed up for their jabs at Live! on Saturday. In a business whose success is founded on the human brain’s notorious inability to accurately calculate risk — and in the midst of a two-year-old pandemic that has revealed that inability in the extreme — these were the Marylanders deciding to make the safe bet. There weren’t too many of them.

“I had to come down this way anyway, so I thought I’d stop in here and see how the line was,” said Thelma Thompson, who lives in Pasadena, Md., sipping from a bottle of water offered to her by one of the clinic workers after her shot. “There was no line.”

Thompson, 63, is a former long-haul trucker who now drives a school bus. She used to like gambling, and has fond memories of $8 steak dinners at casinos when she stopped her rig in Las Vegas back in the day. She said she now knows many people who are willing to take their chances with covid-19 rather than get the shots, concerned about the danger of side effects.

To her, that’s a gamble that doesn’t make sense.

“Well,” she said, when asked to explain her reasoning, “you got vaccines for everything else.”

Most who visited the clinic had come for the medicine, not the slot machines, and impromptu visits from people entering or exiting the casino floor were rare.

Mike Magnolia, a 66-year-old plumber from Annapolis, paused as he strode by the lounge and frowned at the idle team of clinicians. Magnolia wanted a booster, but couldn’t afford to take time off work in the coming days in case the shot temporarily laid him low, as happens to some people.

“I’m afraid I’m going to get sick,” he said. “I want it, and know it’s the right thing to do.”

Magnolia walked away and boarded the elevator.

Gaines came for the vaccine, but stayed for the slots.

“This is my outlet,” he explained, sliding into a chair in front of an 88 Fortunes machine after leaving the clinic. “I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t cheat on my wife.”

Gaines had showed up with $100 and now broke $190. But he wasn’t fooled, he said: The machine was “showing off.” He didn’t hold with the hand-waving, faith in specific slot machines and other superstitions rife on the casino floor.

“It’s nothing special,” he said. “If it’s your day, it’s your day.”

Some of those around him said they had no idea that vaccines were being administered down by the prime rib joint. A number said they were already boosted. One, a self-identified virologist in a nice pair of boots who declined to give his name for fear of retribution from his vaccine-mandating employer, said he hadn’t gotten any vaccine doses and wasn’t about to start.

He said he did not agree with the scientific consensus that side effects were extremely rare and far outweighed by the mRNA vaccines’ benefits, but his explanations were interrupted when he took a call from his wife, who said it was time to leave.

Rod Baylor, a director at Unity Health Care in D.C., was already boosted when he noticed the vaccine clinic, with approval, on his way into the casino.

“I think any place is a good place to give out the booster shot,” said Baylor, who lives in New Carrollton, Md.

He was less sanguine when asked about his performance on the slots.

“Not so good,” he said, staring grimly at the Bonus Times console in front of him. “But I keep hope alive.”

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