The Maryland National Guard will provide logistical support for the state’s COVID-19 vaccination program, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced on Tuesday.

Guard personnel will assist state health officials with vaccination planning, operations and distribution support, he told reporters at a State House news conference. 

“We’re going to be utilizing them as we launch what will be the largest and most important vaccination campaign in the history of our state and our nation,” Hogan said. 

The state’s initial allotment of the Pfizer vaccine, 155,000 doses, will go to people in group “1A” of the rollout – front-line health-care workers, nursing home residents and staff, and first responders. 

Amid reports that two counties in the hard-hit western panhandle of the state would not be getting doses of the long-awaited vaccine, Hogan stressed that “over the course of the next week… every single hospital and every region of our state will begin to receive their first COVID-19 vaccines.”

As the state receives more vaccines, the National Guard will set up mobile vaccination clinics to assist with efforts to reach the general population, Hogan said. 

“While we still have several months of difficult struggles ahead of us, this is a turning point and a light at the end of a very long tunnel, and the beginning of the end of this deadly pandemic,” he added. 

The arrival of vaccines comes as the state’s hospitalization rate set another record on Tuesday, with 1,799 COVID patients receiving care. The rolling seven-day infection rate stands at 46.3 for every 100,000 people, just shy of the record that was set last week. 

The 61 deaths recorded on Tuesday pushed the state’s death toll past 5,000 — to 5,039.

On Wednesday, Maryland will likely surpass 241,900 cases, meaning that 4% of the state’s population — one of every 25 residents — will have been infected with the virus since the pandemic began.

Hospital workers began receiving Maryland’s first doses of the Pfizer vaccine this week. Dr. Jinlene Chan, the acting deputy Health secretary for public health said the state expects to receive 300,000 doses by the end of the month. 

She said it will take “close to a million doses” for the state to vaccinate everyone in “Phase 1” of the priority protocol — frontline health care workers, nursing home and assisted living residents and staff, and first responders. 

The governor announced that the state is making some doses available to health care personnel who work outside Maryland. He will be holding a virtual meeting with Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam (D) on Wednesday to discuss that issue and others, he said. 

Hogan said he would get the shot as soon as it becomes available to him, and he will do so publicly, to help build public confidence in the vaccine’s safety. “But I’m not going to jump the line in front of the people who are above me,” he said. 

Walgreens and CVS will handle distribution of the vaccine to nursing homes, while local health departments will vaccinate their police officers and firefighters, Chan said. 

“Our goal and our focus is really to push it out as quickly as we get it, so we can expand as quickly as we can,” she said. She cautioned that the expectation of having 300,000 doses by month’s end was subject to change. 

Hogan said the state will soon launch a “multi-lingual” public service campaign to encourage the public to get vaccinated. 

On Monday, he held a virtual roundtable with a small, diverse group of University of Maryland Medical System workers who were among the first to get vaccinated.

Among them was Shawn Hendricks, a nursing director at the University of Maryland Medical Center. A Baltimore native, she oversees multiple units that care for COVID-19 patients, and several members of her family — including her mother — have been infected. 

“One of the reasons that I wanted to definitely step up to the plate [was] because I know there’s been some hesitance,” she said. “Being African-American, we are three times more likely to be affected by COVID than any other ethnic group. So there has been death and dying — however, I’m hopeful.”  

Daisy Solares, a respiratory therapist at the UMMC Downtown Campus who has treated numerous COVID patients, said taking the vaccine brought a wave of emotion. 

“Unfortunately, my father passed away from the virus, so I’m basically doing it in honor of him,” she told the governor. 

Hogan thanked the health care workers for their service during the pandemic and for being willing to state publicly that they were willing to take the vaccine.  

“Helping us message — this is going to save lives, so we don’t lose more Dads,” he said, his voice cracking.

Dr. Michael Winters, an emergency department physician, praised all the medical professionals “who have, day in and day out, shown up courageously.”

“We’ve had those anxieties about do we get infected, what’s the risk of bringing it home to our families,” he said. 

At Tuesday’s press conference, Dr. David Marcozzi, the COVID-19 Incident Commander for the University of Maryland Medical System and a top Hogan adviser, offered assurances that people cannot get the virus from the vaccine. 

“It will protect you from getting COVID-19,” he said. “There is no way to get COVID-19 from this vaccine.” 

Chan and Marcozzi stressed that people will need to get both doses of the vaccine to get the 95% effectiveness offered by Pfizer’s product and the 94% offered by Moderna’s. The Moderna vaccine should be available next week, Chan said. 

She also cautioned against believing “rumors and misinformation” on social media.

On legislative session, ‘we’ll see how it goes’ 

Leaders of the General Assembly have crafted a plan for this year’s General Assembly session that they hope will minimize the risks to lawmakers and staff. But given the uncertainty around the spread of the virus, which has pushed hospitalizations to 85% of the state’s staffed-bed capabilities, Hogan asserted it is “very likely” lawmakers will have to amend their plans. 

“We’ll have to see how it goes,” he said. “It’s very likely that they may not be able to continue it the way they’re planning currently, just like the last session when they had to shut down altogether.”

He announced that Cian Diagnostics, a Frederick firm, has contracted with LabGenomics, the South Korean firm that sold COVID-19 test kits to the state in the early weeks of the pandemic. The state quietly returned the initial batch, which were received with great fanfare, then paid $2.5 million for replacements. 

Under the new deal, Cian will purchase kits capable of conducting 1 million COVID-19 tests, the governor said. 

As of Tuesday, Maryland has used “every one” of the 500,000 tests it purchased from Korea last spring, despite what Hogan called “numerous, false, partisan attacks and a coordinated disinformation campaign.” 

By Bruce DePuyt