Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, are moving ahead with plans to open a large vaccination site in a northern part of the county hard-hit by the coronavirus, even as they’re still waiting for the state to give the site a stamp of approval — and supplies of more vaccine doses.
For now, a large-scale vaccine site planned for the Germantown campus of Montgomery College will operate as a proof-of-concept for the county to show the state it can continue handling large numbers of vaccinations.
It is also expected to run on a portion of doses supplied by the state to the county’s health department — which is about 4,500 doses weekly. Scaling up the Germantown site to a true mass capacity requires more vaccine doses, county leaders said.
State-run vaccination sites receive additional doses independent of what county health department’s receive each week.
“All we need is the vaccines,” County Executive Marc Elrich said during an online briefing with reporters on Wednesday. “If we’re provided the vaccines, we will open up a mass vaccination site in the county. We’re ready to do it.”
Earl Stoddard, the head of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said both his staff and members of the public health team have toured the Germantown campus and found that it checks a number of boxes.
“There are several elements about the site that are incredibly attractive and make it a very good site,” Stoddard said. Among them: multiple 10,000-square-foot spaces, including both a gym and a large conference space and thousands of parking spaces.
The campus is located off Interstate 270, which makes it accessible both within the county and even in neighboring Frederick County if the site becomes more of a regional hub for vaccinations.
The college shares a campus with Holy Cross Hospital, which is interested in serving as a partner at the site, Stoddard said.
In addition, the campus is located in one of the county’s “priority” ZIP codes, which has been prioritized for shots given the rate of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the area.
The county is moving forward with using the site “while we wait for a state approval just as … a demonstration that this site is functional,” Stoddard said.
A large-scale site is also necessary given the federal government’s promises that a surge of vaccine supplies is on the horizon. President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that his administration had secured enough vaccines doses — following the green light given to Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot dose over the weekend — to cover all adults in the U.S. by the end of May. That’s two months ahead of the goal previously announced.
“We need more spaces that are fully capable of ramping up — whether there’s a state vaccination site or our own sites — that are scalable, such that when the vaccine doses increase substantially, we can do much higher throughput,” Stoddard said.
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Another large vaccination site in the county is also needed because the two sites currently used to administer shots — Richard Montgomery High School and Quince Orchard High School — could pose logistical and crowding issues once more students return to classrooms later this month.
So far, the Maryland Department of Health has opened six mass-vaccination sites across the state, including at Six Flags theme park in neighboring Prince George’s County. As a state mass-vaccination site, the Six Flags clinic is open to all state residents.
“It’s way far away from the bulk of Montgomery County,” Elrich said of the Six Flags site. “But I will say also, apparently, we’re using it a lot.”
Of the 25,000 shots administered at Six Flags over the past month, more than one-third of them have been given to Montgomery County residents, according to state data.
County leaders have pressed Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration for a mass-vaccine site of their own for weeks, but the state has, so far, not committed. Hogan said during a news conference Tuesday the state is discussing additional mass sites with counties that want them.
The county’s health officer, Dr. Travis Gayles, also said Wednesday that county-run clinics are beginning, for the first time, to schedule appointments for those 65 and older who have preregistered on the county site.
While Hogan expanded statewide eligibility for the shots to those 65 and older starting in late January, given the limited number of doses the county received, health officials had prioritized shots for those 75 and older.
“We are beginning the process of moving to our next set of priority groups,” Gayles said Wednesday.
In addition to residents 65-plus, the county will also begin scheduling appointments for essential workers across a number of industries. Gayles said the health department has been in talks with industry leaders to figure out which workers to prioritize.
Officials continued to counsel patience and stressed that providing vaccine appointments to everyone newly eligible at county clinics would likely take weeks. There are an estimated 91,000 county residents between 64-75 alone.