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Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) first nominated Dennis R. Schrader to become secretary at the Maryland Department of Health four years ago.
On Friday, Schrader was finally confirmed by the state Senate, 45-2. Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard), a public health doctor, and Sen. Mary L. Washington (D-Baltimore City), were the dissenting votes.
Schrader’s nomination was stalled by the Senate four years ago in a tangle of partisan political controversies, and Hogan was eventually forced to turn to Robert R. Neall, an old government hand and popular ex-senator, to lead the Health Department, with Schrader moving to a lesser role at the agency that did not require Senate confirmation.
But when Neall, burned out by managing the state response to COVID-19 and beset by health problems of his own, stepped down as Health secretary late last fall, Hogan installed Schrader as acting secretary and eventually picked him again for the permanent job.
Senators have been conflicted about Schrader’s nomination all along, and created a workgroup at the beginning of this year to oversee the state’s rollout of COVID-19 vaccines — bringing Schrader to the workgroup’s weekly Monday afternoon meetings. Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said since the beginning of the year that Schrader’s nomination would largely be judged by the state’s performance on vaccines, and as recently as two weeks ago suggested that the acting secretary’s confirmation was in jeopardy.
But on Friday, Ferguson, like many of his colleagues, said the state’s vaccine rollout has progressed from chaotic, with some of the neediest communities largely left out, to a smoother, more robust and more equitable process.
“I fundamentally believe it was this body in its advise and consent role that helped move the needle and improve the process,” Ferguson said. “But Secretary Schrader managed the process and deserves credit.”
Despite the lopsided vote in Schrader’s favor, the hour-long debate became heated at times, and some senators confessed to being undecided about how to vote. Several were critical of the Hogan administration’s response to the COVID-19 public health crisis — especially its outreach to communities of color and its willingness to work collaboratively with local political leaders and health departments.
“Nowhere did they prioritize the people who suffered most from this pandemic,” said Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles), who spoke emotionally of losing one of his best friends to COVID-19 and accused the administration of not taking the virus’ devastation in communities of color seriously. But Ellis said he would vote to confirm Schrader because, “I don’t want to change ships in the middle of a voyage.”
Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s) noted that the state’s vaccination program only began to stabilize after President Biden took office and put a more rational and robust distribution scheme in place.
After Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County) implored his colleagues to help him decide how to vote, Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Chairman Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) rose to explain his own thought process.
“Senator, I’m confused too,” Pinsky began. “I feel between a rock and a hard place. I truly do. I feel like he’s a nice guy and I feel like he’s been responsive. He’s been reactive. But I don’t see the vision. I don’t see any looking ahead two, four months down the road.”
Pinsky said he saw Schrader as “a flunky for the governor,” but also warned that a subsequent nominee for Health secretary could be worse, if the Senate rejected Schrader’s nomination. “I’m going to vote green with my fingers crossed,” he said.
Lam said he could not think about a hypothetical next nominee, and argued that Schrader has contributed to the state government’s confusing and inconsistent efforts to distribute the vaccine across the state. “I believe that Maryland deserves better,” he said.
Washington, too, said she could not support Schrader because the vaccine rollout has been so spotty in minority communities — and because, she said, she did not hear from him until this week, while his nomination was about to come up for a vote.
But many senators, Republicans and Democrats alike, lauded Schrader’s responsiveness and hard work.
“I’ve worked with a lot of cabinet secretaries over the years,” Rosapepe said. “I’ve found Secretary Schrader to be one of the most constructive, open cabinet secretaries I’ve ever worked with.”
After the vote, Hogan released a statement thanking the Senate “for recognizing that Secretary Schrader is the right leader to continue steering the state’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Secretary Schrader has served the citizens of Maryland well and faithfully during the biggest public health challenge we have ever faced, and I am very proud of the work he and his entire department are doing to save lives every day,” Hogan said.