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Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said on Friday that the fate of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s acting health secretary, Dennis R. Schrader, could hinge on how well his agency handles an expected surge in COVID-19 vaccines.
Schrader has said that Maryland’s distribution network was built for a time when the state is receiving far more doses than have been available so far.
The state’s system consists of high-volume drive-through sites, hospitals, pharmacies, local health departments, nursing homes and other locations. Schrader said Maryland is now able to do 500,000 doses per week.
With a significant increase in supply expected in the coming days, Ferguson said the Senate, which will vote on Schrader’s nomination soon, will be watching closely.
“I think there is a big test coming up over the next week as to how the system handles this influx of vaccines,” the Senate president told reporters. “I think that be a very important component of any individual senator’s decision.”
Schrader is expected to appear before the Senate’s Committee on Executive Nominations on Monday.
He took over as acting head of the Department of Health late last year, following the retirement of Robert Neall.
The rollout of the state’s vaccination program, which launched just weeks after Schrader took over, has played to mixed reviews.
Ferguson said “there has been progress” in the state’s campaign. Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), a vocal critic of the Hogan administration, offered a similar assessment earlier in the week.
On Monday, the association representing county health officers in Maryland complained to a top Schrader deputy, Dr. Jinlene Chan, about the lack of a more robust equity strategy. As of Friday, they had received no response.
Many lawmakers have also expressed anger at the lagging vaccination rates for Black and Latino residents.
Because of those — and other — frustrations, Ferguson said Schrader’s confirmation is not a sure thing.
“There are still members who are very frustrated with where things stand,” he said. “The gaps are still there and there has to be a continued urgency to close the gaps in the administration of these vaccines.”
This week, Neall sent a letter to members of the Senate, where he once served. “There is no person who has worked harder to create the solutions to the myriad problems we faced,” he wrote.
On Friday afternoon, he joined Schrader at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in East Baltimore, where a vaccination clinic supported by Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force provided second-dose vacations to members of the Hispanic community.
Ferguson squashed speculation that the Senate will let the nomination die without a vote.
“We will be having an up or down vote and we’ll know by the time we leave on April 12,” the last day of the legislative session.