D.C.’s Vaccine Fiasco Sends Me to Maryland’s Eastern Shore

Wherein our hero finally gets his first Covid shot by traveling deep into MAGA country.

“Get thee to Salisbury,” my friends whispered. And so, like a good pagan, I did. After passing through Oxford and Cambridge, I arrived in Salisbury to find not 93 boulders hauled by Druids from Wales and arranged in a circle to worship the sun, but rather 24 tables hauled by Maryland National Guardsmen and arranged in a rectangle to distribute doses of the Covid-19 vaccine.

The District of Columbia is unable to distribute the vaccine with anything resembling speed or efficiency. As I’ve explained previously, the main reason is that the federal government didn’t allocate enough doses, and the District has no congressional delegation to make it care. (D.C. statehood now!) A secondary reason is that the city’s community health centers and pharmacies, which receive 17 percent of the District’s vaccine allocations, have been able to deliver only 21 percent of their supply. It remains a bit of a mystery why this is so, but the Washington Post’s Julie Zauzmer reports that only 10 percent of that 17 percent went to the community health centers, so the problem must be the pharmacies.

For a moment yesterday it looked as though Zauzmer had cracked the case. Giant, whose pharmacies have been distributing vaccines, stopped requesting more vaccines, which was a bit like announcing in the midst of a draught that you didn’t need any fresh water, thank you very much. The reason, a Giant spokesman said, was that D.C.’s vaccination portal wasn’t sending enough customers to use the vaccines it had on hand. The spokesman, Daniel Wolk, also said that the portal was efficient and that he didn’t blame the D.C. government, but it seemed obvious he was just being polite and hoping to evade the wrath of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. Surely, what was happening at Giant was happening at the other pharmacies, which was weird because in other jurisdictions pharmacy distribution has been so wildly successful that the Biden administration wants to expand it.

But after Zauzmer posted her story, Giant clarified that the fault was entirely its own. It lacked sufficient staff to administer the doses properly, plus it had a lot of unexplained cancellations. Well, maybe. But consider, dear reader, that this is a mighty supermarket chain (its name is not Tiny), and that most people in D.C. can’t get vaccine appointments for love or money.

I hope Zauzmer stays on the case, because I’ve moved on.

On Good Friday I drove 126 miles, across the Chesapeake Bay and the Delmarva peninsula (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia), to Salisbury, Maryland. Delmarva is more commonly known as the Eastern Shore. In the 18th and 19th centuries this land was plantations; Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were born into slavery here. Today it’s a flat expanse of pastures, cornfields, tattoo parlors, chicken plants, VFW posts, and Family Dollar stores, dotted with Trump signs, Trump-Pence signs, and, confusingly, Trump-Harris signs, which on close inspection turned out to be Trump signs stapled to signs to re-elect Andy Harris, Maryland’s only Republican member of Congress. Most Washingtonians know this landscape as what you drive through to get to the beach communities of Bethany, Rehoboth (pronounced by locals “Re-hew-beth”) and Ocean City (“Ew-shun City”; the entire complex of Maryland and Delaware beach communities is “downy ewshun”).* I was hurtling my blue Prius through unseasonal snow flurries across Route 50 to get my first injection.

Suddenly everybody I know is crossing the state line into Maryland to get vaccinated. Mostly it’s people in my age cohort (60-65), but a twentysomething friend told me the other day she was going, too. Maryland’s vaccine rollout apparently has all sorts of problems, but they’ve dropped the age threshold to 60 and will drop it further later this month. And the word on the street is that if you really want to see vaccine Candyland, go to Salisbury. I know three friends who went there this week.

It wasn’t clear from my preregistration where I was going. I had an address but no identification of what the facility was. I pulled into a small shopping center in front of a gym and was squinting for street numbers when a pleasant young man in a Salisbury baseball cap asked if he could help. I was looking for the vaccine site, I said. He pointed across the street to the Wicomico Civic Center, correcting my pronunciation (not “WI-cuh-MI-co” but “Wi-COM-i-co”). A mass vaccination site! Then he glanced at my license plate and asked why I’d travelled all the way from D.C. “Because D.C. is a mess,” I said. “Haven’t you heard? You’re being overrun by disgruntled D.C. residents.” I asked him why appointments seemed to be available for just about every hour of every day. He chuckled to himself. He was vaccinated, he said, but “this is kind of a conservative area.”

Wicomico County has fully vaccinated 17.67 percent of its population, which beats the crap out of D.C.’s 15 percent but situates it in the bottom half of Maryland counties. To judge from my experience, you can’t blame the vaccination effort at the Wicomico Civic Center, which ran like clockwork, with Maryland National Guardsmen guiding you to a parking spot and friendly civilians in color-coded vests sorting you into lines (red for registered nurses, blue for nonmedical assistants, green for—I never did find out what the green vests designated). I can’t confirm they were all smiling, because they were wearing masks behind plastic face shields, but they all seemed to be smiling. I arrived early and got my jab. You didn’t even have to have an appointment, they told me, though it worked better if you did. There were perhaps 150 people in the small arena, maybe 10 percent of them District residents like me, judging from my informal review of license plates.

Polls show that 41 percent of Republicans plan not to get vaccinated. Jared Schablein, who chairs the Lower Shore Progressive Caucus, told the Post’s Zauzmer that a “large percentage” of people who live on the Eastern Shore and are eligible for vaccination aren’t getting them. That’s a serious public health problem. Moral and practical instruction don’t seem to work, so let’s try taunting. We city slickers—card-carrying members of the cultural elite and purveyors of fake news who can’t even pronounce your home county right—we’re plucking you quaint rustics like a plump Delmarva chicken. You’ve had 7,127 Covid cases, more than twice the number in three neighboring counties, and 151 confirmed deaths from Covid-19. The only principle you’re defending is your right to get suckered by a bunch of Prosecco-sipping Dix Pour Cent devotees. So shut up already and get your shot. You won’t have to tell anybody except the good people at Wicomico Civic Center, and they won’t tell your friends. Just do it.

*Clarification. I’m informed by the estimable Tim Neville of Outside magazine, a Delmarva native, that I’m getting the pronunciation slightly wrong, conflating the Baltimore (Baldimer) accent with that of the Eastern Shore. The difference is a bit subtle to my ear but click here if you’d like to hear his brother enunciate the two. “Ocean City” is pronounced in Delmarvan, “downy ocean” in Baltimorean. “No one from the Shore says ‘downy ewshun,’” Neville says, a persuasive point when you remember that when you live on the Eastern Shore you’re already there.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

YES, I'LL MAKE A DONATION

Timothy Noah

Timothy Noah is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly. This piece first appeared in Backbencher. He is the author of The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.