Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, provided an update on their COVID-19 vaccination efforts, including a general timeline for moving into the next phases of the rollout and where things stand with an effort to finish vaccinating hundreds of teachers before a phased return to classrooms next week.
Next phase is in sight
County-run clinics are still focused on giving shots to residents age 75 and older under Phase 1b of the vaccine rollout plan — but the next phase is in sight, officials told council members during a meeting Tuesday morning.
As it stands now, about 60% of the county’s residents who are 75 and over have been vaccinated.
There are still about 25,000 residents 75 and over remaining on the county’s preregistration list and who have not yet been offered a vaccine appointment through the county, said Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
However, there are some residents still on the preregistration list who may have been able to snag an appointment elsewhere.
Overall, given the weekly doses the county receives and the pace at which shots are given out, it could be just a matter of a few weeks before the county begins vaccinating those age 65 to 74.
“I think we’re optimistic that it will be on the sooner end rather than the later end,” said Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer.
“Our goal isn’t to achieve 100% vaccinated,” before moving on to additional phases of the vaccine rollout, he said, but to ensure everyone on the list has at least been offered an appointment.
For about a month, residents 65-to-74 have been able to preregister with the county in anticipation of when eligibility expands. There are about 91,000 county residents in this age group, according to U.S. census data.
When eligibility at county clinics does expand, these residents will receive a notification from the county, Stoddard said.
“But we’ll just have to be very clear in our messaging that, just because we’re moving into next tier, does not mean instantly that everyone in that tier will have a vaccine waiting for them,” Stoddard said. “That’s 90,000-plus people in our estimation. It’ll be several weeks from the beginning to the end.”
After nearly a weeklong delay in the shipment of vaccine doses from the federal government due to winter weather across the U.S. last week, Montgomery County’s tranche of vaccine doses arrived Monday with an extra boost. In addition to last week’s shipment of 4,500 first doses, the county received this week’s allocation of 4,500 doses, too — a day earlier than the shipments typically arrive.
Even with a doubling of doses, Gayles told county council members he didn’t anticipate any issues getting shots in the arms.
“I’m confident in the infrastructure that we have that we’ll be able to do that,” Gayles said. “It creates the opportunity where we may be able to add additional clinics.”
Hospitals in the county, which also receive doses from the state, are also likely to handle a bigger than usual shipment of vaccine doses, Stoddard said.
“Just about all the hospitals have been receiving well below their capacity,” Stoddard said. “So a doubling of it would still be within the bounds of what they would be able to do.”
One shot for teachers ahead of return to classroom
Officials also described efforts to get public schoolteachers and school staff vaccinated ahead of a return to classrooms next month, saying they are largely on track with an informal goal of offering at least the first shot to staff members before they return to classrooms.
Montgomery County Public Schools will return a small group of vocational students and some students with special needs March 1. Then, larger groups of students will return in phases by grade level starting March 15.
All told, the return-to-classrooms plan requires a staffing level of about 9,000 teachers and school staff.
So far, about 5,300 school staff members have been vaccinated or have received vaccination appointments. Another 1,500 staff members still need appointments for first shots before the March 1 deadline, officials said.
A partnership between Johns Hopkins University and Suburban Hospital has provided the bulk of vaccinations for educators. To finish vaccinating teachers ahead of the March 1 deadline, Stoddard said the county would be relying on a mix of partners.
Nonpublic schoolteachers are also eligible for vaccine appointments. So far, about 2,000 appointments have been made available to nonpublic school staff members and those are expected to continue apace, with about 500-700 a week, Stoddard said.
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Plea for mass-vaccination site: ‘Please, Gov. Hogan help us’
Several members of the county council continued to urge Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to stand up a mass vaccination site in Montgomery County, which is the state’s most populous jurisdiction.
There are mass vaccine clinics at the Six Flags theme park in neighboring Prince George’s County, as well at M&T Bank Stadium and the convention center in Baltimore.
“It is absurd that the state of Maryland has not yet reached out to our public health team to put in place the plans to establish a mass vaccination site here in Montgomery County,” said at-large Council member Gabe Albornoz.
In addition to being the largest jurisdiction in the state — at more than 1 million residents — the county has the largest percentage of seniors and the second largest percentage of minorities.
“Please, Gov. Hogan, help us,” Albornoz said. “Help our residents, who are your constituents as well.”
County officials have offered up the county fairgrounds in Gaithersburg as a potential location for a mass vaccination site.
In addition to the three sites already named, the state is planning three more large-scale vaccination sites: One on the Eastern Shore, one in Western Maryland and one in Southern Maryland.
Stoddard said state officials have said they may revisit whether to put a site in Montgomery County after launching those locations.
“But until they get those next three sites that they’ve got preplanned opened up and operating, they do not intend to open up a site in Montgomery County,” Stoddard said.
Maryland’s acting Health Secretary Dennis Schrader announced Monday that the state planned to open a central preregistration portal for making appointments at the mass clinics — a step that could make it easier for residents to make appointments but stops short of a single, one-stop portal some county and state lawmakers had called for.
The governor is set to provide a COVID-19 update Tuesday afternoon.
Town hall: Bringing the vaccine into communities
On Monday, officials held a community town hall to discuss racial disparities amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and how to equitably distribute the COVID-19 vaccine with the doses that the county health department distributes.
Department of Health and Human Services Director Dr. Raymond Crowel said a new focus for the county is taking the shots directly to the people.
“Make it available and bring it closer to Black communities, and call awareness to the fact that we need members of those communities that are hardest hit to be aware of the need and availability of the vaccine,” Crowel said of the county’s recent efforts.
Over the weekend, the county piloted doing just that, opening a one-time clinic at East County Community Recreation Center in Silver Spring in one of the county’s hardest hit ZIP codes.
On addressing the skepticism felt by some people of color about getting a shot, Crowel said one key is community outreach. “We’re working with the churches and reaching out to the community to get our trusted messengers talking to their members so that they can in turn get folks signed up,” Crowel said.
Another method is getting people preregistered for the vaccine when they get tested for COVID-19.
“Our effort now is to really try to get more folks preregistered so they’re in our system, so that we can make sure that when we get doses, we can send those doses back out to those communities,” Crowel said.
Overall, state data show a stark divide in who is getting vaccinated.
“In Maryland, the counties and cities with the largest population of Black people all are below the state average of the population vaccinated, which is 11.6%,” County Executive Marc Elrich said during the town hall Monday evening. “So all the ones with the greatest numbers of African Americans are failing to keep up with the rest of the state.”
Elrich said equitable distribution remains a focus of Montgomery County’s public health team.