County Execs: State Vaccine Swaps, Logistical Issues Hamper Distribution Efforts

A bottle of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Prince George's County Government photo.

Montgomery County has now vaccinated nearly half its 75-and-over population against COVID-19, an accomplishment directly tied to the county health department’s outreach to its most vulnerable residents, County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) said on Wednesday.

But Maryland’s vaccination program is still being hobbled by the sharing of sign-up links by recipients, he added. And until people stop sharing those emails — and the state Department of Health comes up with a way to prevent such sharing — the system will be beset by frustration and chaos, Elrich and the county’s top health officials told reporters.

“The state is still trying to fix their software,” Elrich said. “They’ve had a couple of false starts. They’re running another beta test today. …This is going to continue to be chaotic until the state fixes their scheduling system and appointment system.”

Residents who sign up with their local health department for a vaccine get their notification through the state’s PrepMod system.

Elrich said pharmacies and hospitals in Montgomery are getting more than double the number of weekly doses that the county health department receives.

Hundreds — and perhaps thousands — of people who have received a secondhand sign-up link from a friend or relative have been turned away from county vaccination sites, even though they had an appointment.

Elrich defended that practice.

“Our health department continues to be the one place that’s focused on vaccinating people over the age of 75… and front-facing health workers and public safety workers,” the executive said.

Local officials from around Maryland have criticized the Hogan administration for diverting doses from their health departments to the mass vaccination sites in Prince George’s and Baltimore.

Those sites were chosen to boost the state’s efforts to reach majority-Black communities.

“If we want to get the group 75-and-older vaccinated sooner than later, then we have to have a steady supply of vaccine that can be dedicated to that,” Elrich said. “Our focus has been on protecting the most vulnerable in the community.”

Earl Stoddard, the medical director for the county’s emergency management agency, said Montgomery has vaccinated 48.3% of people 75 and up.

While coronavirus infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths are falling, Stoddard cautioned that COVID-19 variants are an emerging concern.

He said officials “have every reason to believe [the variants] are going to take over, and [they] are more transmissible. That’s going to likely happen over a period of, let’s say, the next six-to-eight weeks.”

Local officials are beginning to ease restrictions on restaurant dining because of the drop in infections and hospitalizations.

But Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, said reopenings must be done carefully, due to the unknown threat posed by the variants.

“We don’t want to open things up and have those numbers rebound,” he said.

Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner (D) on Wednesday became the latest local officials complain publicly about a reduction in doses.

She said her health department and Frederick Memorial Hospital have been getting between 2,000 and 3,250 first doses per week collectively.

The state has since notified her that the county will be getting 1,300 doses for the health department and 100 for the hospital.

“Our local public heath system has been doing a stellar job vaccinating the public and operating efficient vaccination clinics,” Gardner said. “The reduction in the total first doses… is disappointing and concerning.”

She said “it appears that vaccines doses have been reallocated to private sector pharmacies and mass vaccination sites.”

The county can’t be sure of that, however, “due to the lack of transparency about where doses have been allocated,” she said in a news release.

Speaking on CNN on Wednesday, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) said the state has the capability to vaccinate between 50,000 and 100,000 people per day. Maryland is receiving 12,000 doses per day from the federal government, he said.

“The big problem for every state, every county and every city, every heath department and every hospital in America, is that we do not have enough vaccines,” he told Wolf Blitzer.

On Wednesday the state health department announced that Juan Dixon, a key member of the University of Maryland’s 2002 NCAA champion basketball team, has joined the state’s “GoVAX” public outreach campaign.

The effort, launched with Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott in late January, showcases prominent African-Americans.

The coach of the Coppin State University basketball team, Dixon is featured in a new public service announcement.

“I’m going to get the vaccine because it’s the right thing to do,” he said in the spot. “I want to see my family. I want to spend time with my friends. I want my kids to get back to having a normal life.”

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.