Maryland is currently one of the top states in the country for vaccinating Black, Asian, and Hispanic residents, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation and a big reason is an effort led by the Maryland National Guard, officials said.

The key to the state’s success is the state’s Vaccine Equity Task Force, led by Army Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead, the commander of the Maryland Army National Guard, officials said during a Thursday media roundtable. The task force also includes officials from the office of the lieutenant governor, health disparities experts, and state Medicaid officials.

The task force is “partnering with local health departments, and community stakeholders to bridge the gap between the health divide and health disparities throughout the state and to increase Marylanders’ access to the COVID-19 vaccine,” said Birckhead during the press conference. “Growing disparities in [minority] communities make it necessary to take intentional and concrete steps to remove the barriers we see, and to improve the rate of vaccine in arms in vulnerable populations”

Birckhead also spoke about how the task force’s efforts are meant to increase vaccine education and develop sustainable partnerships between local health departments, community leaders, and organizations providing vaccinations that so “then the National Guard can step out and we’ve helped, hopefully, to build trust [and] make connections that weren’t there before.”

Part of the task force’s challenge has been to assuage the concerns of local officials about partnering with the Guard.

“At first…I think the health departments were really a little leery,” said Birckhead. “[But] when they realized…we’re additive, we’re not taking away, then it became very quickly a very collaborative effort.”

The general highlighted efforts to educate community leaders as a key trust-building measure, such as a recent gathering of faith leaders at a National Guard-supported mass vaccination site at M&T Bank Stadium.

And as the vaccination effort continues apace, the troops assisting with vaccinations are becoming “motivated to see it to the end, because it looks like we can see an end to [the pandemic],” said Birckhead.

A junior Maryland Air National Guard member assisting with the M&T Bank Stadium mass vaccination site — one of five currently operating in the state — agreed.

“We have a lot of patients that come in and this is actually their first time out of the house in a year,” said Senior Airman Jasmine Lee, who also participated in the state’s early pandemic response in spring 2020. “Being able to see them enjoy coming to the vaccination site [and] getting their vaccine…it’s a strong motivation for us to keep pushing.”

Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.

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