Officials in Prince George’s County, Maryland, are canceling all COVID-19 vaccination appointments made by people who don’t live and work in the county to prioritize the county’s own senior residents and make sure they are not stuck “in the back of the line.”
Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks announced the move during a news conference Monday morning.
When the county first opened up vaccine appointments to people age 75 and older under Phase 1b of Maryland’s vaccine rollout plan, the scheduling system, a state-run system, did not allow the county to screen out nonresidents, and it was swamped with appointments made by people outside the county.
“There were a good number of people who signed up through that website who were not Prince Georgians,” Alsobrooks said.
All told, about a third of vaccinations of those 75 and older, so far, were of people who don’t live in the county, according to county Health Officer Dr. Ernest Carter.
Last week, Alsobrooks said the county would honor appointments, even of nonresidents, through Feb. 9, after which all appointments would be reset and only residents would be allowed to make appointments.
But Alsobrooks and Carter said Monday they decided to more quickly restrict appointments given the extremely limited supply of COVID-19 vaccines.
Now, the county will be checking ID for proof of residency or proof of employment “for every vaccination appointment going forward,” Alsobrooks said.
Both officials apologized to county residents that so many vaccine appointments intended for Prince George’s County residents were booked by nonresidents.
“I have heard loudly and clearly about the concerns,” Alsobrooks said. “I know it caused great concern, great consternation, as it should have.”
She added: “We’re doing everything we can to prioritize Prince Georgians in our vaccine effort. And we’re making sure that residents have first access to this lifesaving medicine and are not in the back of the line.”
If there were a more abundant supply of the vaccines and a national distribution plan, the county would probably be able to vaccinate nonresidents, Carter said.
“But we have neither,” he added. “So, we have to do it this way to ensure that our Prince George’s County residents get vaccinated.”
The only exception to nonresidents receiving COVID-19 vaccine doses will be for those who already received their first doses in the county. Appointments for second doses will still be honored, Alsobrooks said.
The vaccine rollout across the U.S. has led to frustrations over limited supply.
Neighboring Montgomery County hasn’t yet started vaccinating those age 75 and older — even though they’re now eligible — because of the limited supply. Montgomery County officials last week said they were aware of reports that some residents had driven to Prince George’s to get vaccine appointments.
Even given the limited supply, Maryland state officials have moved to expand eligibility. Earlier this month, Gov. Larry Hogan announced those 75-and-older were eligible to receive the vaccine starting Jan. 18, and those 65-74 starting Monday under what’s known as Phase 1c of the plan.
Alsobrooks said older residents of Prince George’s should preregister now for vaccine appointments on the county’s website. They will be contacted by county health officials when it’s time to make an actual appointment and will be given a private link to do so.
Alsobrooks emphasized that it could be several weeks before residents in the 65-74 age group can actually start making appointments. There are about 95,000 county residents in Phase 1b, which is still ongoing, before the county begins Phase 1c shots.
Currently, the county is now administering about 1,000 shots a day, although it expects to ramp up in the coming weeks.
The county’s website says those in Phase 1c will likely be able to start making appointments to get their shots in early to mid-March.
In addition to those age 65 to 74, Phase 1c includes grocery store workers, public transit workers and postal workers.
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Improving numbers = indoor dining to restart
Meanwhile, officials said they are finally seeing more hopeful signs in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic after a surge earlier this winter.
The positivity rate in the county — the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive — has ticked downward — to 9.2% from 11.7% two weeks ago. The county’s goal is below 10%.
“We are thankfully seeing now a trend in the right direction,” Alsobrooks said.
As a result, she said, the county is “cautiously moving” to resuming indoor dining Friday, with capacity inside limited to 25%.
“This is unless of course there’s some dramatic and unexpected change. But we are really confident that it is heading in the right direction,” Alsobrooks said.
The county restricted indoor dining last month when faced with rising coronavirus cases.
Going forward, Alsobrooks urged residents to continue exercising caution, wearing face coverings, avoiding large gatherings and practicing social distancing — even as vaccinations pick up.
“We’re going to have to walk and chew gum, folks,” Alsobrooks said.