Senators Call on Health Department to Issue Stricter Statewide COVID-19 Mandates, Require Vaccines in Schools

A nurse draws a vaccine dose as Marylanders receive their second dose of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine at the Cameron Grove Community Center on March 25 in Bowie. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

In spite of cries for stricter statewide COVID-19 protocols from lawmakers, Maryland Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader remained steadfast in the idea that local government agencies should remain in control of mask and vaccine mandates.

“We really believe that local authority knows best,” Schrader said at the Senate Vaccine Oversight Workgroup meeting Tuesday afternoon.

As COVID-19 delta variant infections continue to crop up, members of the workgroup urged Schrader to impose tougher standards, including re-issuing a statewide mask mandate and requiring students aged 12 through 17 to be vaccinated before returning to school in the fall.

Schrader said that the delta variant is now the “predominant variant in the state” and “[at a] minimum, two to four times more contagious than the alpha variant and the original COVID virus.”

More than 70% of all eligible Maryland residents are fully vaccinated, including more than half of Marylanders aged 12 through 17.

The health secretary said that COVID-19 shots may be approved for children under 12 later this year.

According to Schrader, Maryland has very strong laws that grant authority to local school boards and superintendents to make decisions for their respective systems.

He also said that the Maryland Department of Health does not have the authority to require students to be vaccinated statewide.

But some lawmakers disagree with the Department of Health’s interpretation of the law.

Citing Maryland’s education code, Sen. Clarence Lam (D-Howard) said that the agency has the ability to issue regulations that require students to be inoculated to attend school.

“It seems to fairly clearly articulate that you have the authority to do this and, given that we are only a few weeks away, if not maybe just a week or two, from students … going into school — many of whom are not vaccinated — it seems like there’s no strategy here to get those students vaccinated,” Lam said.

Schrader said that he would have to go back and check with the department’s lawyers to verify Lam’s “assertion.”

“Our assessment is different,” Schrader said.

According to a letter of advice from the attorney general’s office to Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s), state health officials do have the authority to create statewide vaccine policies.

“…it is my view that [the Maryland State Department of Education] has given [local education agencies] flexibility regarding in-person instruction operations,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Sandra Benson Brantley. “Nevertheless, if the Secretary of Health or local health officer mandated vaccinations, the [local education agency] would be required to follow such directives.”

‘Very concerned about the direction we’re moving’

Also on Tuesday, Jon Baron, a nonprofit executive and gubernatorial candidate, called on Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and local officials to institute tougher vaccine and testing requirements.

At a press conference in Baltimore, Baron said all state employees and contractors, in addition to educators and school staff statewide, should be required to show proof for vaccination or receive weekly testing. Baron also said all workers in “indoor healthcare settings” should be required to show proof of vaccination.

He also wants to see more local governments in Maryland implement vaccination and testing requirements, similar to Montgomery County’s plan.

“I’m proud of the fact that Maryland is the 7th most vaccinated state in the nation,” Baron said. “But our contest is not with other states; it’s with the virus. Currently 40% of all Marylanders are unvaccinated, and until those numbers increase, we remain highly vulnerable to the delta variant.”

Schrader said that Hogan will be making an announcement regarding vaccine requirements at a news conference Wednesday.

Lawmakers at Tuesday’s meeting also expressed a desire to see the mask mandate be reinstated.

“I think we’re going to end up getting there anyway, and so it’s a matter of now or later and the sooner we do it the faster we’re through it,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said.

Lam, a doctor, grilled Schrader, asking what it would take for the Department of Health to push for another mask mandate — especially considering the recent discovery that vaccinated people who contract the delta variant are contagious.

“We believe that the way out of this is through vaccinations, and we are continuing to press on that as our primary tool to move through this,” Schrader responded.

Lam said that he’s “very concerned about the direction the state’s moving.”

“The environment has certainly changed, in the state doesn’t seem to be doing all that much differently,” he said. “We seemed to be doing good enough until recently [and] now are, in fact, removing tools in the public health toolkit.”

“So I am very concerned about the direction we’re moving,” Lam said.

Bennett Leckrone contributed to this report. 

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Editor’s note: The headline for this story was updated after it was initially published.