By Jannette J. Witmyer, Special to the Afro

As Maryland’s COVID-19 positivity and hospitalization rates continue to decline, restrictions for those who’ve been fully-vaccinated have been lifted, and people are returning to enjoying time spent with family and friends. For many, it’s their first face-to-face visit (masked or maskless) in over a year and greatly due in part to the massive efforts put forth to get people vaccinated. The state’s 24 major jurisdictions all put in the work, and in mid-May, Howard County’s efforts achieved record-breaking results by becoming the first county in the state to vaccinate 50% of its population.

Starting from day one, County Executive Calvin Ball viewed the vaccine as a game-changer, and his number one priority was making doses available to everyone. When Howard County’s first 100-dose allocation arrived December 23, 2020, just as the holiday season went into full swing, the work began.

“I pulled our team together, and we said, ‘This is going to be a priority, the vaccine is going to be the way that we get on the road to recovery,’ We made it a top priority to not only ensure that our residents were vaccinated as efficiently as possible, but that we made equity, a key staple. And, making it so those who had barriers to getting a vaccine — like transportation, work hours, childcare — that we eliminated those barriers. We looked at our population, and we wanted to ensure that our population mirrored the vaccination population,” Bell explains.

If the people couldn’t get to the vaccine, they took the vaccine to them. One of the first counties in the state to launch mobile units, Bell says that the Mobile Integrated Community Health (MICH) team made its first house call to a shut-in patient in mid-February.

They created special clinics for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, partnered with school nurses to ensure educators were covered, set up hours of operation to accommodate different work schedules, partnered with faith community clinics, visited apartment complexes, created access for townhome communities and independent living nursing/home congregate facilities, and opened mass vaccination site at The Mall in Columbia.

But it was not all “smooth sailing,” and HoCo residents faced the same challenges experienced statewide, while trying to secure an appointment when supplies were low. To address that issue, Bell says they took “a strategic approach and empowered the community with as much education and information as possible.” 

When Bell felt that the time had come to get his shot, Howard County’s first African American county exec was intentional in his decision to be vaccinated publicly and in his choice of vaccine. He says, “I got the J and J. That was the one that had, frankly, the most concerns. Once there was sufficient vaccine, on March 8, I publicly received mine, because I wanted people to see that while there was vaccine hesitancy, particularly among people of color, that I was willing to get my shot, and that it was efficacious, and that it was the way that we could get back to not just surviving but thriving.”

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Jannette J. Witmyer

Special to the AFRO