Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, are clearing up confusion about how to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in the county amid continued tight supply and an increasing number of hospitals and grocery store pharmacies that have been provided with vaccine doses to distribute.
Though there are a number of ways to get a vaccine, there is no single front door for residents of the county to go through to get in line for the first available appointment.
People who are eligible for the vaccine and want to make an appointment need to either preregister with the county — for a slot at a county-run clinic — or check multiple website run by different individual providers to see if there are openings.
One thing to note: No matter where you look, demand is incredibly high and the supply of vaccines is extremely limited.
“There’s been a lot of finger pointing, and that finger pointing is not helpful; it isn’t going to solve anything,” County Executive Marc Elrich said during a news briefing Wednesday discussing the county’s vaccination efforts. “What I want people to understand in the community is that nobody is denying them vaccine … People need to understand that if they can’t get on the schedule today, it has nothing to do with somebody not wanting to vaccinate them … it’s just — they ran out of slots.”
Health dept. prioritizing age 75+
Overall, of the 18,825 first doses supplied by the state to Montgomery County providers this week, the county health department received 5,500.
Although people age 65 and older are eligible to receive vaccinations under statewide guidelines, county health clinics are only vaccinating people age 75 and older.
If you are 75 or older, you can preregister for an appointment with the county health department, and the county will contact you when there is an open appointment. As of earlier this week, there were more than 50,000 people 75 and older who were preregistered already.
Elrich said the priority for county-run clinics for the near-term will remain the 75 and older population, which has seen the highest mortality rates from the coronavirus.
Only after sizable numbers of people 75 and older have been vaccinated will the county begin to move on to the next phases, he said.
“We’re trying to get people to realize there has to be an orderly progression; there’s a reason why it’s been set up like this,” Elrich said. “And I feel the frustration.”
If you’re 65 and older, which falls under Phase 1c of the state’s vaccine rollout, you can preregister with the county as well, but officials are cautioning that it will take a while to vaccinate the county’s 75+ population, so they’re urging patience.
(Other people can also register on the county website if they meet certain criteria, such as if they are teachers, or other front-line essential workers. The county says you should only preregister at this point if you fall under either Phase 1b and 1c.)
Elrich also announced Wednesday that eligibile county residents and Montgomery County Public Schools employees may start getting their vaccines from Johns Hopkins Medicine. It’s part of an effort to help prepare for the reopening of schools.
Elrich said in a statement that Maryland has given Johns Hopkins Medicine 8,775 doses for Montgomery County, which will be used to vaccinate county residents who are older than 65 who and have received care from Johns Hopkins Medicine providers within the last two years, as well as MCPS employees.
When there are vaccine appointment openings and it’s your turn, the county will email you with a link to schedule an appointment. But county officials are clear: Do not share the appointment link with others. That’s because anyone with the link can then make an appointment — including people who are not included in the county’s current priority groups.
The link to schedule an appointment will come directly from the email address “firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Elrich said there have been instances of people in their 20s and 30s signing up to make vaccine appointments because of improperly shared links. “They are taking away vaccines from people who are in the highest priorities in the state and we need people not to do that,” he said.
Also, a vaccination site run by the state government, which was previously used to schedule other types of immunizations, has been a “major problem” because it allows people to make appointments even if they don’t meet the county’s criteria.
The state health secretary said Tuesday that a fix for the website is in the works.
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Other places to get vaccinated
There are several other places offering COVID-19 vaccines in Montgomery County.
Under a partnership with the state, four Giant Pharmacy locations in the county started offering vaccine appointments this week. Each pharmacy location is slated to receive about 400 vaccine doses this week.
Appointments are being scheduled online. However, as of Wednesday, a message on the Giant website said: “There are currently no COVID-19 vaccine appointments available. Please check back later. We appreciate your patience as we open as many appointments as possible.”
Suburban Hospital, in partnership with Johns Hopkins University, has 8,875 vaccine doses to distribute. The hospital is providing vaccinations for its patients who are 65 or older, as well as vaccines for teachers in Montgomery County. There are three sites, including in Germantown, the Suburban campus in Bethesda and the Applied Physics Lab, which is actually in Howard County.
Adventist Healthcare is providing vaccine appointments for health care workers and those 65 and older at three locations. As of Wednesday afternoon, there were no vaccine appointments available.
Holy Cross Hospital is prioritizing health care workers and those 75 and older. The next appointment slots will be released on Thursday at 4 p.m. You can see more information on the hospital’s website.
Kaiser Permanent Gaithersburg has received 1,950 doses. Kaiser Permanente patients who are 75 and older are directed to fill out a questionnaire with their kp.org user name and password.
More information is available on the hospital’s website.
Why officials urge caution
County leaders said they understand people are eager to get vaccinated, but they urged caution about shopping around.
“By over-registering and trying to saturate the system, you thereby lock up appointments that can be shared with other folks,” said Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles, but he added: “We recognize the frustration.”
He said it’s a function of the current inadequate supplies of vaccine doses, but that county officials are asking residents not to sign up for multiple appointments if they can, “recognizing, however, there is a lot of anxiety, and there’s a lot of desire to get the vaccines in any way, shape or form that they can.”
At a minimum, if you sign up on multiple sites and you actually get an appointment on one of them, “cancel the other opportunities or make clear that you’re not going to accept the other opportunity so you’re not holding slots that you do not intend to use,” said Earl Stoddard, the county’s director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
There have already been some no-shows at county clinics. “And those are missed opportunities,” he added.
The county is also looking at sharing its list of people who have preregistered with the other providers.
“We are hoping that we will have other providers accept from our preregistration list, because obviously, that’s an easy way for them to find people who are interested in receiving the vaccine,” Stoddard said.