Maryland’s health chief on Wednesday rejected a request from local health officials to prioritize their requests for COVID-19 vaccines, saying that the state doesn’t have enough doses to do so.
In a letter to the leaders of 22 of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions, acting Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader said, “recently local health departments collectively submitted requests for more than 94,000 doses, a collective request far exceeding the total allocation the state receives from the federal administration.”
“Certain individual jurisdictions have requested as many as 20,000 vaccines in a single week alone — a request that would be impossible to fulfill given our allocation from the federal administration,” he added.
Schrader’s letter came in response to one that county executives, county commission chairs and county council chairs of both parties sent this week to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) through the Maryland Association of Counties.
The initial letter sought greater “transparency” in how doses are allocated, a prompt release of federal funds intended for county health departments, and a prioritization of local health departments’ requests.
“Each week, state health officials provide full transparency to county health departments on the allocations that each of their counterparts and their hospital systems receive,” Schrader wrote.
In their letter, county officials said they are not being given a full look at all the doses that are delivered within their jurisdictions, including to pharmacies, other private partners and mass-vaccination sites.
They asked that the state disclose those numbers, to “demonstrate that counties are receiving their share of doses.”
In response, Schrader said “there are 51 retail pharmacy partner sites in Maryland operating through the Federal Pharmacy Transfer program. Each pharmacy is being allocated approximately 200 doses each week.”
He also acknowledged that Maryland is “adjusting” its weekly disbursements based on how well local health departments adhere to state “directives.”
“As stated on numerous occasions, Maryland’s goal is to provide each jurisdiction with its pro-rata percentage share of doses by population across all providers, with adjustments for providers who are efficient at vaccine administration and who comply with the state’s vaccine priority directives,” he wrote.
Maryland is now in Phase 1C of its vaccine rollout. Phases 1A, 1B and 1C account for 1.5 million people, including people 65-and-up, health care workers, first responders, teachers, nursing home residents and staff, and many others.
This week the governor’s spokesman accused Montgomery County of “sitting on” doses. Several counties had to cancel vaccination clinics due to last week’s inclement weather.
“We encourage every provider to follow the state’s vaccine priorities,” Schrader added.
With the Biden administration pledging to give states more lead-time in the number of doses they can expect each week, Schrader said local health departments can expect better information as well.
The secretary did not directly address local leaders’ request to pass along $400 million in federal funds intended for their health departments.
“Governor Hogan announced more than $123.2 million in funding to support Maryland’s local health departments on February 4, including dedicated vaccination funding and support to address local budget shortfalls,” he wrote. “For more information, please see the news release.”
Hogan is expected to announce the addition of new mass vaccination sites, on the Eastern Shore and in Southern Maryland and Western Maryland, in the coming days.
While the state has recently begun to receive an additional 16,000 doses per week from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, local officials worry that the doses used at those sites will result in further reductions in their supply.
On Saturday, the St. Mary’s Health Department complained on Twitter that the vaccine allotment it had just received “was the lowest received… since the first 100 doses arrived for staff training/prepositioning.”
“We are disappointed that allotments for local health departments were cut to divert supply for state-run mass vaccination centers,” the department said.
Schrader said that local health departments now account for roughly one-third of the state’s vaccinations.
“We appreciate the important role they play as part of the vaccine distribution network,” he wrote.
Two county leaders were largely dismissive of Schrader’s letter.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) said he “saw no new information in Schrader’s response.”
Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker (D) criticized the state for prioritizing mass vaccination centers and private retailers over county health departments.
“This isn’t a simple failure to communicate,” Hucker said. “Their letter shows we have competing values.”