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As vaccination rates among seniors decline, Maryland pitches ‘ground game’ to reach them

Acting Maryland health secretary Dennis Schrader at a news conference on March 18 in Annapolis.
Acting Maryland health secretary Dennis Schrader at a news conference on March 18 in Annapolis. (Brian Witte/AP)
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With vaccine supplies increasing and eligibility expanding this week, Maryland health officials fear that the coronavirus vaccination effort is moving forward with too few seniors having sought the shot.

Nearly 70 percent of the state’s residents ages 65 and older have received at least one dose since they became eligible in late January, but the vaccination rate among that population has plummeted in recent weeks, officials said.

“It’s hard to look at this and think that’s going to reverse course without some sort of intervention,” Michael Powell, a legislative analyst, told a panel of state lawmakers Monday evening. The daily vaccination rate of people ages 70 to 80, for example, has dropped by about two-thirds, according to Powell’s analysis.

Concerns about seniors falling behind in the vaccination efforts also come amid troubling trends in the virus’s spread. Cases continue to rise in Maryland, which recorded more than 1,000 new cases daily for 10 of the past 12 days. The state’s test positivity rate has been increasing for more than three weeks, while hospitalizations climbed over the weekend to more than 1,000 patients for the first time in more than five weeks, according to state data. State health officials said the majority of those ill and hospitalized were younger people, however.

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The slowing vaccination rate for seniors comes as eligibility expands on Tuesday to include Maryland residents ages 16 and older with underlying medical conditions, potentially creating more competition for limited vaccine appointments. The supply has also increased by 50,000 doses this week, largely because of an influx of 34,000 single-shot Johnson & Johnson doses.

Acting health secretary Dennis Schrader said that reaching most of the roughly 295,000 remaining seniors “is one of my top priorities.” He set a target of finding and vaccinating 3,500 seniors statewide each week, relying on primary-care doctors, community groups and local health departments to persuade people to get shots.

“That’s going to be a very focused ground game,” Schrader told state lawmakers Monday. “It’s going to be a grind. . . . It’s not going to be an easy thing.”

The state has more than doubled this week a new program to allocate doses to primary-care physicians, increasing the number of participating doctors from 37 to 90. Schrader said he hoped that seniors would be more willing to get a vaccine from their regular doctor.

Schrader said he was watching the rising cases and hospitalizations closely, but he played down potential ties to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to lift most capacity restrictions two weeks ago.

“We don’t want to overreact,” he said.

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Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said in an email that the only trend revealed by contact tracing is an increase in cases tied to out-of-state travel, particularly to Florida but also to Pennsylvania and the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Hogan has urged people to abide by mask-wearing and social distancing mandates he left in place.

“The governor and our health experts have said that we are in a race between the vaccines and the variants,” Ricci said. “We must remain cautious and vigilant so that the vaccines prevail.”

State Sen. Clarence K. Lam, (D-Howard), a public health physician, expressed worry that people seem to be letting down their guard too quickly, and he urged the Hogan administration to issue stronger warnings to residents.

The rising caseloads in Maryland are the most pronounced in the region, according to The Washington Post’s tracker.

Maryland’s seven-day average of new daily cases rose to 1,196 on Monday, a threshold last seen on Feb. 12. Nine deaths were reported on Monday as the state’s average daily toll continues to decline.

Virginia’s seven-day average of new daily cases increased on Monday to 1,506, the highest level since March 3. The commonwealth reported 21 additional deaths.

In D.C., the seven-day average of new daily cases declined slightly, to 124. Three people in the city died of the virus, bringing D.C.’s total tally to 1,059 since the pandemic began.

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