Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced Friday the launch of an “aggressive” public outreach campaign aimed at promoting the public’s confidence in the available COVID-19 vaccines, especially in minority communities that have been hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Hogan announced the “GoVax” campaign at a news conference at Camden Yards in Baltimore, alongside Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and a host of other public figures, from pastors to public health professionals, who are acting as ambassadors to the program.
The outreach campaign comes amid a still tight supply of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as concerns about public health hesitancy and concerns about ensuring limited supplies of vaccine doses are distributed equitably.
“Over the next several months, we will be taking this campaign to every corner of every community: to TV, radio, billboards, social media, Zoom — whatever it takes to promote the safety and efficacy of these COVID-19 vaccines, and to make sure that Marylanders know that getting vaccinated is the best way to keep you, your family and your community healthy and safe, and to save the lives of thousands of Marylanders,” Hogan said.
In addition to the public outreach campaign, Hogan announced the launch of a new Maryland Equity Task Force, which will be led by Brigadier Gen. Janeen Birckhead, the head of the Maryland National Guard.
Birckhead, who most recently commanded Maryland National Guard troops who responded to the U.S. Capitol following the deadly Jan. 6 riot, will be tasked with working with the GoVax ambassadors as well as state and local health officials to “ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines throughout the state of Maryland,” Hogan said.
At Friday’s launch of the GoVax effort, Hogan spoke of his desire to see Camden Yards packed once again with thousands of Baltimore Orioles fans and said widespread vaccinations are the only way to begin to return to normal.
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‘We are doing this not just for ourselves’
Speakers at the launch of the campaign, who are serving as program ambassadors, spoke of the sense of responsibility in getting vaccinated.
“I thought to myself: What are my options?” said Bishop Walter Thomas, of the New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore. “I can take the vaccine; I can get the virus; I can get sick; I can die; I can spend the rest of my life in my house. Given those options, there was only one worth taking. And that was the vaccine.”
The bishop noted the fairs, festivals, block parties and backyard barbecues Baltimore is known for, “all of which have been silenced over these last 12 months,” Thomas said. “But now, through the vaccine, we have an opportunity to do those things that matter so much to us. And we can open our eyes and see this possibility.”
Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, participated in COVID-19 clinical trials last year to help increase vaccine confidence.
“We are doing this not just for ourselves — anybody who takes that vaccine — we’re doing it for everybody around us,” Hrabowski said. “We’re doing it for our children, but especially … we’re doing it for our mamas and daddies and our grandmothers. And so, it’s not just about me, it’s about all of us.”
Dr. Kathleen Page, associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine whose expertise is infectious disease, emphasized the science underlying the safety and development of the vaccines.
“As an infectious disease doctor and a bit of a nerd, I have read the studies on all the vaccines in detail,” Page said. “And this is the good news: This vaccine is safe and it is so effective. It actually has exceeded all our expectations.”
Page, who has treated COVID-19 patients, said she has been “heartbroken so many times to see so many people suffer so severely (and) die away from their families. I really cannot express how difficult that has been for so many of you.”
She added, “But there is light at the end of the tunnel. And this vaccine will make a difference.”
For Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, who represents parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties in the Maryland House of Delegates, COVID-19 has hit close to home.
“For me, it’s very personal,” Peña-Melnyk said. “It’s very personal that you get your vaccine.”
Peña-Melnyk lost her father and her cousin to COVID-19, as well as two friends, one of whom, an otherwise “healthy man,” she worked alongside for months over the summer to distribute food.
“You can prevent this,” Peña-Melnyk said. “If, when it’s your turn, you trust it and get the vaccine.”
Getting more people to take the vaccine when it becomes available is about building “community immunity,” she said.
Peña-Melnyk noted that the vaccines are provided at no cost no matter where you get it, and she reassured members of the Latino community “whether you’re documented or undocumented, we’re not going to ask you for any proof of citizenship.”