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COVID-19 in Maryland Education

State Launches $2 Million Booster Lottery; GOP Lawmakers Target Student Mask Order

Photo by Heather Hazzan/Self Magazine.

Marylanders who get a COVID-19 booster will be automatically entered to win a cash prize, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced on Tuesday.

Beginning on Feb. 15, the state’s new vaccine lottery — dubbed VaxCash 2.0 — will offer a dozen weekly prizes. Picked by the Maryland lottery, the first winner will take home $500,000, the next ten winners will each receive $50,000, and the May 3 “grand prize” recipient will pocket $1 million.

Winners will be chosen at random, the governor said, and everyone who gets their primary vaccines and boosters in Maryland will automatically be registered to win. No registration will be necessary.

The state’s COVID-19 caseload and resulting hospitalizations spiked on Jan. 7, driven by the highly-contagious omicron variant. In the four weeks since, infections have declined sharply.

Nevertheless, Hogan told reporters at a State House news conference, the majority of hospitalizations and deaths in Maryland involve people who are not fully vaccinated.

“All of the data shows that protection does wane over time,” he said. “So, no one should consider themselves fully protected unless you have gotten the booster shot.”

More than 4.4 million Marylanders are fully vaccinated, according to the state health department. And 95% of the state’s adults and 89% of the population aged five and older have had at least one shot.

People who have been vaccinated but not boosted are three times more likely to be hospitalized if they become infected than those who are fully protected. “And they are three times as likely to die from COVID-19 if they are not fully protected with a third dose,” the governor said.

In an effort to reach more residents, the state on Tuesday launched an expanded call and text outreach campaign. Hospital-based testing sites that don’t already offer booster shots will begin doing so.

On Friday, the governor’s mansion, M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards will be lit blue to mark Healthcare Heroes Appreciation Week, and Hogan encouraged Marylanders to wear blue on Friday.

With the state’s infection rate returning to pre-omicron levels, Hogan said his office plans to ask the State Board of Education to consider changes to their masking regulations at their next meeting, scheduled for the end of this month. He did not specify what changes he thinks need to be made, but noted that the end of Maryland’s statewide mask mandate was announced last May.

Last month, the universal mask mandate that the State Board of Education approved at the start of the school year was replaced with a new policy will allow schools to lift the mask mandate under any of three conditions: if 80% of staff and students are fully vaccinated, if 80% of the full county population is fully vaccinated or if a county’s COVID-19 transmission rates are low or moderate for 14 consecutive days, as reported by the CDC.

Asked if he plans to issue an executive order making mask-wearing optional in public schools — an action taken by Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) of Virginia — Hogan said he does not. He stressed that local school boards have the authority to make their own decisions.

“I don’t believe we have the authority to demand that school boards do what I say,” he said, “but we are going to certainly weigh in when we think that they’re being too aggressive.”

Cheryl Bost, the head of the Maryland State Education Association, said “putting more pressure” on the state school board is unwise. “We believe that the emergency regulations provide for local decision-making, as transmission and vaccination rates are different throughout the state,” she said.

On Tuesday, Republican members of the House of Delegates urged State Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury and the State Board of Education to “immediately rescind” the current mask mandate in public schools.

“The damage that covering faces does to the development of children is something that we will not fully grasp for many years to come,” they wrote. “However, there are early indications that masking negatively impacts cognitive development as well as emotional well-being – neither of which should be sacrificed for a mitigation measure that provides no true health benefit for those children.”

The caucus also asked the State Board of Education to either eliminate or modify the “off-ramps” to the mask mandate, contending that they are not scientifically proven.

But the State Board of Education argued that its masking regulation came from research-based off-ramps for local school systems focused on vaccination and transmission rates, according to Lora Rakowski, spokesperson for the Maryland State Department of Education.

At each monthly meeting, the board will continue to review current COVID-19 metrics and assess the need for continuing the emergency regulation, Rakowski said. “The Maryland State Board of Education is watching with optimism as Covid-19 metrics improve in the State because our goal has been and continues to be to provide safe in person instruction for our children and staff with minimal disruptions,” Rakowski wrote in an email.

GOP lawmakers noted that Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat who has imposed strict pandemic-related mandates throughout the coronavirus pandemic, announced that he will end the mask requirement in public schools next month.

All 24 local superintendents are upholding the masking regulations as required by law at this time, according to Mary Pat Fannon, the executive director of the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland.