Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, say they hope to begin rolling out the coronavirus vaccine to people age 75 and older under Phase 1b of the state’s vaccine plans, but that demand is still far outstripping the meager supply of shots provided by the state.
Since a pre-registration website for people age 75 and older went live last Friday, more than 68,000 people have signed up to be alerted by the county when appointments for older adults begin.
Meanwhile, as the county continued vaccinating thousands of health care workers, the county received just 7,300 new first doses of the coronavirus vaccine this week, officials said.
It’s an impossible math problem that’s leading to frustration by both county officials and residents who are eager to get a shot.
“If I seem frustrated by this, know that my true frustration is 10 times what you’re seeing right now,” said Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer “The system is not fit to do what we need it to do.”
He estimated there are more than 70,000 people who are 75 and older in the county eligible for the coronavirus vaccine, and another 170,000 to 280,000 people who are over 65.
“And I’m getting 7,000 doses a week to dole out. The math doesn’t add up,” Gayles said, adding: “We are working hard to get your doses. Trust me; we don’t want to turn anybody away. We want to get everybody covered right away, to get you protected. But we’re working with limited resources.”
Gayles said he is “hopeful” the county would be able to move forward with vaccinations of people 75 and older as next week.
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State supply of doses limited
Overall, Maryland receives about 72,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine from the federal government each week — a number that isn’t likely to change for at least the next several weeks.
Of that number, only about half are disbursed to the two dozen local health departments across Maryland for them to distribute to the public, officials said.
Nevertheless, Gov. Larry Hogan has recently moved to expand eligibility requirements. This week, under those new guidelines, Marylanders age 75 and older were eligible to be vaccinated. Next week, starting Jan. 25, people ages 65 to 74 are eligible under the state’s guidelines.
Montgomery County officials have been clear: They don’t have enough vaccine doses to begin vaccinating older adults this week, even as other jurisdictions, such as Prince George’s County, have moved to do so.
“So he’s going to create a group that thinks they’re immediately eligible for vaccine,” Elrich said of the governor’s announcements. “They are eligible, but he’s not increasing the amount of vaccine beyond 7,000 new doses. So I can put you in a line you weren’t in before. But it doesn’t mean you’re going to get vaccinated any faster, unless the number of vaccines that we get actually increases.”
What happened at Quince Orchard?
The massive demand and the extremely limited supply has led to some confusion, and even potential line-jumping, for access to the vaccine.
Several older adults, who had evidently made appointments on the state system, were turned away from a county vaccination site at Quince Orchard High School Thursday morning.
Officials said the people who were turned away were in the 75-and-older category who aren’t being vaccinated in the county yet because of the low supply.
Gayles said the health department is still looking into how they were able to make appointments in the first place, but that it appears email links were inappropriately shared.
The link to make appointments is through a state system designed for administering the flu vaccine, said Earl Stoddard, the director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. Anyone with a link can make an appointment, and the system doesn’t have functionality to automatically screen people out.
For now, links to make appointments are still limited to health care workers being vaccinated under Phase 1a.
“What’s happening is people — health care providers, most likely — believe they’re helping the community by sharing the link,” Stoddard said, adding, “They’re actually doing a great disservice to their community by sharing that link, by slowing down the system.”
The county is working to make sure vaccinations are done fairly and equitably, “not based upon you know or you may have access to in terms of getting a link,” Gayles said.
Officials stressed that people 75 and older who have pre-registered will receive communication directly from the county with a link to sign up for a vaccination appointment when they are available.
“Some folks were simply doing what they thought was appropriate, because someone sent them a link,” Gales said. “But I will say this very clearly to anyone else who is unscrupulously utilizing the links or trying to register ahead of time: We will have zero tolerance for that behavior.”
Gayles said he is sympathetic to state health officials who are responsible for distributing the relatively small number of vaccine doses.
“”They are having to thread lots of needles based upon a limited supply coming from the federal government,” Gayles said.
But Stoddard said the “allocations are totally uneven,” given Montgomery County’s overall population and number of health care workers who qualified for the vaccine under the very first phase of the vaccine rollout.
Stoddard said the state’s moves to expand eligibility across the state, even though supply hasn’t increased, seems like the state saying, “‘We’re just going to throw 30% of the population against one another and have them compete for spots,'” adding, “We just don’t believe that’s a fair and equitable way to do vaccine distribution.”