With Montgomery Co. halfway through vaccinating residents 75+, what’s next?

Health officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, said they are about halfway through vaccinating the county’s oldest residents against COVID-19, and also expect to finish vaccinating several thousand teachers who are needed back in classrooms by the school system’s planned March 15 reopening.

The update in the county’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts came during an online briefing with reporters Wednesday.

So far, in the month since Maryland residents age 75 and older were made eligible for the vaccines under Phase 1b of the state’s plan, about 48.6% of the county’s 75+ residents have received the shots, said Earl Stoddard, head of the county’s office of homeland security and emergency management.

That equates to about 35,000 of the county’s population of 73,000 senior residents, based on 2019 census data. And that includes vaccinations performed by the county health department, as well as retail pharmacies, hospitals and through the state’s mass vaccination clinics.

Given the low supply of vaccine doses, clinics run by the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, for which residents must preregister for access, are only vaccinating front-line health care workers and residents age 75 and older.

As for when the county will move onto the next phase in the rollout?

“Obviously, we want to get further into that group before we move into other parts of the 1b phase,” Stoddard said.

County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said there’s no “magical percentage” to reach before moving on to the next phase of the vaccination effort.

While the county isn’t necessarily aiming to reach 100% before moving on, he added, “We want to make sure that everybody who is in that category has had a chance to register for an appointment, whether it’s through our site or other sites, before we move forward.”

Gayles said the department is looking at rolling out mobile clinics that would bring vaccines directly into certain communities to make sure they aren’t leaving any older residents of the community behind.

“We are concerned that there are those who are over 75, for whatever reason, haven’t preregistered in the system and we’re missing them,” he said.

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The next tier of the county’s vaccine rollout plan under Phase 1b includes public transit workers, grocery store workers and teachers.

Teachers have already been able to get vaccinated at pharmacies — although appointments are in short supply — as well as through a partnership between Montgomery County Public Schools and Johns Hopkins University and Suburban Hospital.

As part of that partnership, about 6,000 MCPS teachers have already been vaccinated so far. The first stage of the county’s plan for returning students to classrooms by March calls for staffing levels of 9,000 employees.

“That means we have several more weeks to get vaccines in arms, and I suspect that given the current pacing, we’ll certainly have just about all that 9,000 with a shot in the arm by that period of time,” Stoddard said.

He added, “We think that we’re not off of pace of having at least one shot in the arm for teachers” before the March 15 deadline.

Overall, more than 111,000 county residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-15 vaccine — the highest in the state. That amounts to more than 10.6% of the population of the county, which is the most populous in Maryland.

“We still have a long way to go,” County Executive Marc Elrich said, noting the low supply of doses provide by the state to the county’s health department.

As it stands now, the county health department is receiving 4,500 doses a week. Thousands of other doses are shipped by the state to pharmacies and hospitals, which each have their own sign-up systems.

Elrich called the lack of a single sign-up and appointment process “haphazard.” County residents have described spending hours on various websites trying to snag sparse appointments.

In addition, Montgomery County’s vaccine rollout process has been hampered by a state-run registration system that allows links to appointments to be shared. Such links have turned up on online message boards, resulting in hundreds of ineligible people showing up with appointments at county sites, who are then turned away.

“The state is still trying to fix their software,” Elrich said. “They’ve had a couple of false starts. They’re running another beta test today.”

Last week, the Maryland Department of Health provided longer-term projections of the number of doses to be provided to each health department over the next few weeks. Gayles, the county’s health officer, said that will aid in planning, but fixing the state registration system is key.

“That will allow us to feel comfortable and confident when we send a link out to these appointments, that they are going to the people who actually are eligible for them. You can imagine a situation where we were planning clinics out for a month, and we send out a link, and people are sending it out to everybody else and it’s spreading through the community.”

Elrich, who said he hasn’t been vaccinated yet because he said he feels other who are more at risk should go ahead of him, said he understands residents’ frustrations.

“This is going to continue to be chaotic until the state fixes their scheduling system and appointment system, so that there’s a way to bring some order to this.”

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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