Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, said Tuesday they will expand eligibility for COVID-19 vaccine appointments at county clinics to those 60 and older starting Tuesday — saying new state rules have forced their hand in lining up with Maryland’s vaccine timeline.
Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, told members of the Montgomery County Council that a newly issued directive from the Maryland Department of Health orders all vaccine providers in the state, including county health departments, to follow the state’s vaccine rollout schedule.
Previously, the county had moved more slowly than the state in expanding eligibility at county-run clinics, citing the limited numbers of doses the county receives each week and the need to prioritize the most vulnerable residents.
But the amended March 22 order from acting Maryland Health Secretary Dennis Schrader states all Marylanders that fall in the state’s current Phase 2a guidelines “shall be eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines” and that “political subdivisions shall not make orders or rules to the contrary.”
In the wake of that directive, the county is now allowing residents ages 60 to 64 to preregister for vaccine appointments on the county’s preregistration website, Gayles said.
“We can get them in the queue to provide opportunities for them to be vaccinated,” Gayles said during a virtual council meeting Tuesday. “Now, let’s be clear, however — as we’ve said all along — just because someone’s eligible doesn’t mean you will get an appointment right away.”
Gayles said the change by the state — requiring local health departments to follow the state’s timeline — was made without consulting with local health officers and that no rationale was given.
Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said in an email the health secretary’s order, “formalizes the state’s distribution plan to comply with the federal directive to broaden eligibility and make all adults eligible by May 1.”
Last week, the governor laid out a timeline under which all Marylanders 16 and older would be eligible for vaccine starting April 27, meeting a goal of May 1 set by President Joe Biden to open up access to COVID-19 vaccines to all adults by May 1.
Still, Gayles cautioned that even though eligibility at county clinics is expanding, the county health department still isn’t seeing a big enough boost in vaccine doses to be able to able start putting shots in the arms of those newly eligible.
“There is still going to be some time to wait before you’re able to get an appointment,” he said.
This week, the county health department received 8,000 vaccine doses from the state, which is up from 6,600 last week and nearly double the 4,500 doses a week for several weeks before that.
Overall, more than 25% of the county’s population has received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, although many residents are going outside the county to get vaccinated, including through appointments at the mass vaccination site at Six Flags America theme park in neighboring Prince George’s County.
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‘Where’s the damn plan?’
The shift to align with the state’s timeline was welcomed by at-large Council member Hans Riemer, who said it would reduce confusion about who’s eligible for a shot.
But at-large Council member Will Jawando, who was working on a since-scrapped county regulation that would have lowered eligibility requirements specifically for residents in high-risk ZIP codes, slammed the move, saying it would make it harder for the county to ensure vaccine doses are distributed equitably, given the still-limited supply of doses.
Requiring local health departments to follow the state’s expanded eligibility “has hampered our ability — in taking a tool out of the toolbox — to target those who are most vulnerable,” Jawando said. “I think it’s disgusting. I think it’s playing politics with people’s lives. It’s shameful.”
Council member Craig Rice, who represents District 2 on the council, was heavily critical of Gov. Larry Hogan, suggesting the governor wasn’t sufficiently consulting local health officials in making pandemic-related decisions and lacked a strong plan for vaccine equity.
“It’s a dereliction of duty,” Rice said. “I hope folks remember this, remember the fact that there are Black and brown people that are dying, there are Black and brown people that are getting affected by this disease more than anyone else. And you can hold a press conference, Gov. Hogan, all you want, to talk about equity. Where’s the damn plan? Because I haven’t seen it.”
Officials in the county have sought to emphasize racial equity in the county’s vaccine rollout, including prioritizing residents in the areas hardest hit COVID-19, identified as those areas with high coronavirus case rates and high death rates.
Dr. Raymond Crowel, the head of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said the county’s focus on priority ZIP codes, so far, “has led to real progress in … getting folks vaccinated in our more highly-impacted communities.”
Still, disparities remain in the distribution of the vaccine. While Black people make up 19% of the county’s population, they make up only 12% of those who have received at least one vaccine dose. Similarly, Latino residents make up 20% of the county’s population and just 10% of those who have received a vaccine dose in the county, according to the county’s vaccine dashboard.
“You can see we still have a ways to go,” Gayles said.
Lawmakers and county officials also blasted the governor’s office for keeping local officials in the dark before making sweeping announcements.
On Tuesday afternoon, Hogan announced plans for six additional mass vaccination sites. But beforehand, officials said they had no idea what the governor would announce.
“It’s sort of an unfortunate thing with the way the relationship is right now. And, you know, we try and make it work, to the extent that we can,” said Dr. Earl Stoddard, the director of the county’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Tracking cases in schools
About a week after elementary school students in kindergarten through third grade returned to classrooms under Montgomery County Public Schools’ phased reentry plan, Gayles, the county health officer, said his office is continuing to track a few coronavirus cases involving school students.
Most of the incidents are single cases without possible contacts in the school, which Gayles said suggests they were exposed to the coronavirus at home. However, there have been two outbreaks related to school sports, he said.
An outbreak at Walt Whitman High School involved three football players, as well as two other players with possible contacts. At Winston Churchill High School, Gayles said there were a “number of student athletes across multiple sports” who were exposed to a student at a nonpublic school.
The update on cases involving sports comes less than a week after county lawmakers loosened rules on the playing of youth sports previously deemed “high-risk,” including football.
WTOPs Kate Ryan contributed to this report.