Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, say they continue to fight rumors and misinformation about who can get COVID-19 vaccinations in the county and the improper sharing of appointment links that are gumming up the works to get the most vulnerable county residents vaccinated.
Since late January, given the limited supply of vaccine doses, county-run clinics have been prioritizing only residents age 75 and older for vaccine appointments.
But reports on social media indicated large groups of people showed up to get vaccinated at one of the county’s clinics at Richard Montgomery High School on Thursday morning, including teachers and those under the age of 75.
That was apparently the result of improperly shared appointment links and misinformation that teachers and walk-ins were being taken at the site, according to Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles.
“There were apparently a significant number of folks who showed up at one of our sites today — and were not happy when they were turned away,” Gayles said during an online briefing with reporters.
One of the people who showed up at the high school site was Diane Nemeth, 70, of Silver Spring. She said that she knew that the county is prioritizing those who are 75 and older, but she got a link directing to the state’s appointment portal from a listserv that was forwarded to her.
“Since this was a state website, I thought I had a chance,” Nemeth said.
She stood in line in the snow with other people who were lined up for blocks, until someone came out to say that people who are not 75 or older should go home.
The county has been clear over the past few weeks that people seeking to be vaccinated at a county-run clinic need to preregister with the county, and have to be 75 or older, Gayles said.
Part of the problem is that after residents preregister and are sent links to make appointments, those links are being shared with others — and, in some cases, widely shared.
Gayles said he’s heard from officials in other counties that links are showing up on group email lists and Listservs, creating a “free for all” instead of the orderly process local health departments are aiming for.
County Executive Marc Elrich said link sharing remains a problem. It is “creating a mess in terms of who can actually get vaccinated,” he said — and it’s preventing people age 75 and over from actually getting appointments “because those appointments have been taken by somebody else.”
The appointment links are generated by a state-run site, known as PrepMod, that the county is required by the state to use. Even though the state-run system asks users to put in their age, it doesn’t kick them out if they aren’t 75 or older.
Gayles’ staff, meanwhile, can’t screen all registrants younger than 75 years old since health care workers are also still eligible for vaccination. “We’re trying to triage,” Gayles said.
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County officials have been pressing the state for a software fix to the link-sharing problem for weeks, and at least one fix is now on the way. The system is being adjusted so that each link can only be used by one person.
In the meantime, Gayles and other county officials are urging residents to be responsible: If you aren’t 75 or older, don’t make an appointment at a county-run site, even if someone shares a link with you.
But Montgomery County resident Rick Crump said officials have to “make that clearer.”
“We’ve been very clear about who’s eligible and who we’re prioritizing at different sites,” Gayles said. “And if you know that you don’t meet that criteria, and yet you still register, how can you be ultimately upset when you show up at the place we remind you that you’re not eligible to receive that vaccine? And, in fact, you’re creating a system where you’re taking an appointment from someone who does meet the criteria, and that slows the process down from moving forward.”
Crump, 65, said that his daughter shared a link with his wife, and when they pulled up, there were people there who have been waiting for an hour and had more to go, he said.
“I’m not trying to get ahead of anybody. I don’t want any special treatment. Just tell me what to do, and when the time comes, let it happen,” Crump said.
Even though the state shifted eligibility guidelines last month to include those age 65 and older, the county isn’t receiving enough doses from the state to do more widespread vaccinations, Elrich said.
Last week, the county health department received about 5,500 first doses to distribute. This week, the county received about 4,500 doses.
Elrich said the county is continuing to prioritize residents 75 and older since that group has the highest mortality rate. “They were made the first priority for a reason,” Elrich said.
So far, over the course of about two and a half weeks, about 27,000 county residents age 75 and older have received vaccine doses, according to county data. But that’s only a little more than a third of the county’s total 75-and-over population.
If the doses provided to the county don’t increase, Elrich said it would take another 10 weeks to finish vaccinating the county’s oldest residents.
Adding to the confusion is the increasing number of private providers, such as hospitals and pharmacies, that are being supplied with vaccine doses and that can vaccinate those 65-to-74, as well as teachers. (All told, about 10,000 doses a week go to those other providers, county officials said.)
If those other providers, such as hospital and pharmacies, committed to setting aside half of their allotments to specifically target those 75-and-over, Elrich said it would take about half as long to finish vaccinating all the 75+ residents eligible — about five weeks.
“It will be a very long wait for people if we have to rely on the amount of doses that the county itself is getting,” he added.
For now, given the lower numbers of vaccine doses — and there are about 300,000 Montgomery County residents eligible under the first phase of the vaccine rollout — providing doses to one group over another is a zero-sum game.
“That is the problem with making everybody eligible when the supply is as low as it is,” Elrich said. “We would love to make these vaccines eligible to everyone. We just don’t have the supply to do that.”
Added Earl Stoddard, the director of the county’s office of homeland security and emergency management: “As much as we hear about others — teachers wanting to get vaccinated, 65-to-74-year-olds, postal workers, grocery store workers — we hear just as many seniors over the age of 75 who have not gotten an opportunity yet and are desperate to get one as well. And so, every appointment that gets taken by a teacher, that is an appointment that a 75-year-old is not getting.”
WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report.