South Africa and U.K. coronavirus variants detected in D.C.; Maryland to open third mass vaccination site – The Washington Post

Maryland earlier this month opened mass vaccination sites at Six Flags America in Prince George’s County and at the Baltimore Convention Center Field Hospital. Three additional mass vaccination sites at yet-to-be announced locations in Western, Eastern and Southern Maryland will open in March if sufficient doses are available, Hogan said.

Maryland and Virginia reported their first cases of coronavirus variants days ago, and D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt had said she suspected the highly contagious variants already were circulating in the District. On Wednesday night, she got proof: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified three patients in the city with the variant first seen in the U.K. and one with the variant first identified in South Africa.

There might be many more, Nesbitt said, as only a small sample of all positive coronavirus tests are sequenced to detect variants. In many cases, a patient might never know which variant was contracted.

Leaders in the District and Maryland on Thursday continued to confront enormous demand for vaccine doses from residents and from the pharmacies, clinics and health departments administering the shots.

County health departments in Maryland have seen their allocations drop in recent weeks as the state siphons doses into its expanding network of vaccinators, frustrating local leaders, who are struggling to meet demand at public clinics. The Hogan administration has defended its decentralized system as critical to building an infrastructure that can ramp up when the federal government delivers more doses.

To help assuage the concerns of local governments, Hogan said the state will offer a four-week guarantee of doses so public clinics can plan accordingly.

“The basic problem is very simple: We need more damn vaccine,” Hogan said. “Just because you may be eligible does not mean that a vaccine or an appointment for a vaccine will be available to you.”

Hogan said county health departments receive about one-third of the state’s vaccine allotment. He said he considers their push for more vaccine an effort “to monopolize” doses, calling it an “absurd” request.

He noted that although just 24 health departments and 80 hospitals initially were authorized to administer shots, there now are 2,300 “points of access” to get vaccinated across the state. Doses must be distributed throughout the network, he said, and not concentrated in health departments.

The governor also announced Thursday that the state will provide 1 million coronavirus tests to public and private schools that offer in-person learning. Tests will be distributed based on the ­number of teachers, staff members and students participating in in-person instruction. Rapid antigen and the more-sensitive polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests will be available.

Hogan encouraged Maryland public school systems to reopen by March 1. Clinics throughout the state have prioritized vaccinations for teachers, although demand for shots far outpaces supply.

Hogan said progress in Maryland’s vaccination campaign, which has distributed 753,000 first doses, has prompted him to decide that nursing homes without active outbreaks can resume in-person visits starting March 1, nearly a year after they were suspended.

Meanwhile, concerns continued to mount Thursday that the rush to vaccinate residents has unfairly favored the state’s White residents, who have received a disproportionate number of vaccines, even though Black and Latino residents have been hit harder by the virus. Black people make up 31 percent of the state’s population but have received just 15.2 percent of the vaccines, according to state data.

Hogan announced that each county needed to designate a liaison to work with the state’s task force on vaccine equity, led by Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead of the Maryland National Guard.

Thursday marked the first day since the District started offering vaccine registration twice a week that every available appointment wasn’t snatched up within minutes. The difference, Nesbitt said, was that this time the city reserved more than 1,000 of the 2,500 appointments for patients who called to sign up.

Previously, city officials drew from the same pool for both online registrations and those made over the phone. All online registrations were claimed Thursday morning, but appointments were still available by phone in the midafternoon.

Nesbitt said she worried that residents who had heard about long phone waits in the early days of vaccine registration were too discouraged to try calling in recent days.

“We’re creatures of learned behavior,” she said, urging residents to keep trying to schedule a shot as the District works toward its goal of vaccinating 70 percent of the city’s senior citizens by the end of the month.

She also noted a decline in the portion of residents answering contact tracers’ phone calls, which has dropped below 70 percent for the first time since September.

In Montgomery County, officials emphasized Thursday that only residents in Category 1A and those 75 and older are eligible for vaccinations at county sites. Health officials said a “significant” number of residents — including teachers — who did not fit into those categories have been turned away from county sites.

“People need to follow the rules,” County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said. “It is not orderly right now.”

Elrich said the short supply of vaccine doses in the county and across the country means that it is important to focus on older residents, who are most vulnerable. He said about one-third of Montgomery residents at least 75 years old have received their first shot.

Montgomery County Health Officer Travis Gayles noted that no vaccine doses are tossed out when people who signed up are turned away. The vaccines are stored for future clinics.

A line outside Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville on Thursday stretched multiple blocks, with people reporting that they waited for more than two hours in frigid weather to get their vaccines.

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