Amid conflicting messages about a proposed COVID-19 mass vaccination site in Montgomery County, officials there insist a new vaccine site will open on the Germantown campus of Montgomery College by the end of the month.
But whether it’ll truly live up to its name as a mass vaccination site will depend on whether the state supplies the vaccine doses required to pump out thousands of vaccinations a day.
That’s what Montgomery County officials told reporters during a weekly online briefing Wednesday — the day after the county first announced the plans, which Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan promptly declared “premature.”
“It’s going to happen,” said Earl Stoddard, the head of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, of the Germantown vaccine location. “It’s just a matter of how the state views the partnership in the immediate term,” Stoddard said.
From the get-go, county officials have said the Germantown location would be different from the way other mass vaccinations in Maryland work, since those are state-run operations. When Stoddard first announced the plans for the site during a council meeting Tuesday morning, he billed it as a partnership between the county, Holy Cross Health and the Maryland Department of Health.
Stoddard said the initial goal is for the county to get the site up and running by April 1, and to work out all the logistical kinks by April 15, when — if the state commits enough vaccine doses — the site would be capable of administering up to 3,000 shots per day.
“We’re going to get the initial site set up before April 1 and then expand on to it with additional capacity,” Stoddard said. The county has settled on an April 1 deadline in part because it has to relocate two existing vaccine clinics — one at Richard Montgomery High School and one at Quince Orchard High School — as students return to classrooms.
While Hogan and acting Maryland Health Secretary Dennis Schrader maintain that no final decisions have been made about the state’s commitment to the site, Stoddard said Wednesday the state health department and the Maryland National Guard have already been assisting with designing and building out the site.
That includes plans to boost Wi-Fi on the Germantown campus and helping the county get set up on the Salesforce platform the state uses to schedule appointments at its other mass vaccination sites.
“I just want to make it clear we’re getting great support from the state agencies across the board,” Stoddard said.
It all depends on doses
County lawmakers have been pushing the state for weeks to open a mass vaccine site in the county, Maryland’s largest county and one of the most diverse.
In an interview with WTOP’s Bruce Alan earlier Wednesday, Schrader, the acting health secretary, said his department was focused on opening the first round of the mass vaccination sites it has already planned around the state before considering additional sites.
In addition to the four locations that have already opened, including Six Flags in neighboring Prince George’s County, two other large-scale vaccine sites are set to open in Maryland: one on the Eastern Shore later this week and one in Hagerstown, in Western Maryland, next week.
While thousands of Montgomery County have been vaccinated at mass sites, so far, County Executive Marc Elrich said, “it’s not easy to get to these sites” for county residents, noting that a trip to the Regency Furniture Stadium site in Charles County is a 114-mile round trip.
Hogan said Tuesday the state is in talks with “four or five” other large counties about launching additional mass vaccine sites, but said no decisions had been made and suggested the final decision was dependent on greater clarity from the federal government about the increase in vaccine supply the state will receive.
Stoddard understands the governor’s hesitancy about over-promising a new mass vaccine site before actually having more doses in hand.
“He rightfully cannot overcommit the vaccine that he does not have,” Stoddard said of the governor. “He cannot say, ‘We’re gonna give you this amount of doses on this date,’ because he does not know whether he’s going to have the doses available to him from the federal government to him allow him to do that.”
But if the state doesn’t boost the county’s allocation of doses beyond the 6,600 the health department currently receives, a mass vaccination site “doesn’t make sense,” Stoddard said. “If there’s not going to be any more doses, there’s not going to be a need for a mass vaccination site.”
Conversely, Elrich said, “I could stand up a mass vax site before April 15 if somebody would drop the doses on us.”
Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, said the county is continuing to plan for other ways besides the Germantown site to distribute the vaccine in the county.
“We are not putting all of our eggs into one basket, into Germantown,” Gayles said. “We are going to stand up vaccine opportunities at multiple other sites as well, to be able to increase contact points for our residents to be able to access.”
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State health official: ‘No doubt’ about meeting WH vaccine goal
In the interview with WTOP earlier, Schrader said the state would be ready to expand eligibility of the vaccines to all adults starting May 1 — a deadline President Joe Biden pushed for in a White House address last week.
“There’s no doubt,” Schrader said. “We’ve been planning for this for months, and we’ve been building the infrastructure systematically, step by step, and we are going to be ready.”
Schrader was also asked about reaction local leaders who said they were surprised by the governor’s move last week to lift most coronavirus capacity restrictions on restaurants, retailers and other establishments.
Schrader pointed to weekly calls with local leadership across the state. “We’re working very closely with the local jurisdictions,” he said.
When pressed on the fact that local leaders said they weren’t given any head’s up about the change, Schrader replied: “You’d have to ask them. I don’t know. The bottom line is: We’ve got a plan. We’re following the plan.”
He pointed to declining coronavirus case numbers and hospitalizations across the state.
“We were we able to manage our way through the surge, and then the positivity rates been dropping, the cases per 100,000 have been dropping,” Schrader said. “All the signals have been very positive. So I don’t think anybody was surprised.”
WTOP’s Bruce Alan contributed to this report.