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COVID-19 in Maryland Government & Politics

Lawmakers Question Expansion of Vaccine Eligibility While Doses are Scarce

Dave Lacknauth, Director of Pharmacy Services, Broward Health Medical Center shows off a bottle of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during a press conference on Dec. 23, 2020 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Demand for COVID-19 vaccines in Maryland is quickly outpacing the state’s supply of vaccines, causing confusion for residents and prompting tough questions from lawmakers at the first meeting of the Senate Vaccine Oversight Workgroup on Monday.

The state is only getting about 72,000 doses a week on average from the federal government, Acting Secretary of Health Dennis R. Schrader told lawmakers on Monday.

And the state is slower than most in getting those vaccines to residents: According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, Michael Powell of the Department of Legislative Services said at the meeting, Maryland ranks 40th compared to all other states and the District of Columbia in terms of vaccine doses administered per state population.

More than 300,000 Marylanders, around 5.08% of the state’s population, have received their first vaccine dose so far – but more than half of the vaccine doses allocated to Maryland haven’t been used yet, Powell said. He noted there are some discrepancies in data, and state and federal data on exactly how many vaccine doses have been allocated to Maryland varies.

Despite the rocky start to Maryland’s vaccine rollout, state officials have pushed forward with vaccine eligibility. On Monday, the state moved into Phase 1C of the program, which includes adults aged 65 and older, Postal Service employees and manufacturing and agriculture employees. All told, that means more than 2 million Marylanders are now eligible for the vaccine. But Maryland’s county health departments haven’t been able to expand vaccination to everyone in Phase 1A, 1B and 1C because they’ve received a fraction of the number of vaccine doses needed for those groups.

In Montgomery County, for example, there are more than 164,000 people eligible under the state’s guidance, but only 26,900 doses have been received so far, officials said Monday.

As to why the state expanded vaccine eligibility even while vaccines are in short supply, Schrader said the federal government “forced our hand” in demanding that people aged 65 and older be eligible for the vaccine.

“They insisted that 65 and older be put into the mix,” Schrader said. “That really was unfortunate.”

Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard and Baltimore County) said states have the final authority to decide how vaccines are rolled out, and pressed Schrader on whether the state was really forced to expand the vaccination program.

“I try not to blame anybody,” Schrader said. “This is a very hard problem, to be honest with you. We’re all in this together and tough decisions are going to have to be made.”

After the meeting, Lam told Maryland Matters that the state offered “a lot of contradictory information” on vaccines.

Lam noted that Schrader said the state is in the process of building infrastructure to cope with a much larger vaccine demand later this year, but also said the state plans on using already-existing pharmacies at stores like Walmart and Giant to distribute vaccines.

“One one hand they’re talking about building infrastructure,” Lam said. “But it sounds like the infrastructure is really relying on existing entities.”

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) thought the biggest takeaway from the meeting was that the state is focused on a “decentralized” plan for vaccine distribution, preferring to work with health providers rather than set up mass vaccination sites run by the government.

Schrader said the state wants to have as many options as possible for expanding the vaccination rollout in the coming months. He said the state is evaluating which pharmacies, health departments and hospitals are vaccinating Marylanders the fastest, so they can be prioritized over slower organizations.

“We want to have more than one or two channels in a county … so that we’ve got options in case one group isn’t working as well as the other,” he told lawmakers.

And, with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) urging schools to return to hybrid learning by March 1, Schrader conceded that not every teacher will be vaccinated by the time they return to in-person work. The state is still prioritizing older adults, he said, and getting a vaccine will be “competitive” even for those eligible.

“It would not be reasonable to say every educator’s going to have a shot before school’s open, depending on when the schools want to open,” he said.

Hogan is planning to hold a State House press conference about vaccine distribution Tuesday afternoon.

The Senate workgroup was established earlier this month as lawmakers expressed dissatisfaction with the state’s vaccination rollout. Ferguson vowed that Hogan’s nomination of Schrader to permanently fill the Health secretary role, which is subject to Senate confirmation, will not move forward until the state shows “progress” in its vaccination push. 

Local health departments struggle with low supply, high demand

Earlier Monday, Montgomery County leaders were intensely critical of Hogan’s vaccination strategy, charging that the governor hasn’t included local governments in his planning process.

At that briefing, Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker (D) and Vice President Gabriel Albornoz (D) highlighted the challenges long-underfunded local health departments are facing amid the state’s vaccine rollout.

They said Montgomery County has been getting a low and often inconsistent number of vaccines in state allocations.

“We’re committed to getting everybody vaccinated as quickly as we can,” Montgomery County’s top health official, Dr. Travis Gayles, said at a Monday morning media briefing. “However, we have an inadequate supply.”

Hucker said he, like Hogan, wants to see students back in schools as soon as possible – but added that the short supply of vaccines makes the March 1 goal difficult.

“It’s a supply and demand problem,” Hucker said. “It is simple math.”

He said smaller, more rural counties are getting a larger allotment of vaccines proportional to their populations than some of Maryland’s larger jurisdictions like Montgomery County.

Lam said the state’s decision to open wider eligibility for vaccines “set up the local health departments and hospitals for failure,” because many residents won’t be aware that there aren’t enough vaccines to keep up with demand.

“I think we have a long way to go,” Lam said. “It’s really disappointing that we’re in the circumstances that we are in now.”

Albornoz said the county recently held a town hall to answer residents’ questions about vaccines. No one from the Maryland Department of Health appeared on that virtual town hall, he said, despite the county’s invitation.

“We are not in a position to respond to many of the questions that have been raised,” Albornoz said. He noted that, like local governments, the state also struggles with a low supply from the federal government.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct Sen. Clarence K. Lam’s district. He represents portions of Howard and Baltimore counties. 

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