As coronavirus cases continue sliding downward and vaccinations pick up pace, officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, say they’re concerned one of the factors behind vaccine hesitancy may be too much optimism.
“We need to convince those people who are hesitating to take the vaccine,” County Executive Marc Elrich told reporters during a weekly media briefing. “I’m concerned about the hesitancy.”
Overall, more than 50% of Montgomery County residents have received at least one vaccine dose, and one-third of residents are fully vaccinated. Montgomery County was one of the first jurisdictions in the state to cross the 50% vaccination threshold.
Still, surveys by the county’s community engagement team, which have been conducted over the past several weeks probing residents’ hesitation about the vaccine, show a variety of factors at play, including that “People don’t believe it’s urgent,” Elrich said, “that they want to wait and they’re looking at our declining numbers and thinking , ‘Oh, well, this might go away.'”
Overall, Montgomery County’s case rates are some of the lowest in the state — just 7.82 cases per 100,000 and a positivity rate of just about 2%.
But Elrich urged people not to become complacent.
“This is not going to go away, certainly not all by itself,” Elrich said. “If it goes away, it’ll be because of all the things we do.”
Other factors contributing to vaccine hesitancy, according to the community surveys, are tied to religious beliefs, privacy and confidentiality concerns, and a feeling that it’s too much of a hassle to get vaccinated. On that point, Elrich said he did lay some of the blame on the lack of a centralized state registration system early on in the pandemic, when vaccine supplies and eligibility were more limited.
All Marylanders 16 and older are now eligible for the shots.
Elrich said he’s also hopeful the vaccination rate will continue to climb following the county’s move to a new plan that ties the easing of coronavirus-related restrictions to the vaccination rate.
With more than 50% of residents having had at least one dose, the county loosened restrictions on movie theaters, camps, malls and sports events starting earlier this week.
Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, provided an update on where county residents are getting their shots, detailing data that showed white residents were more likely to have traveled outside the county to get vaccinated — although a majority of all demographic groups had been vaccinated within the county.
Overall, 53% of white residents were vaccinated in Montgomery County compared to 47% out of the county. Among Black and Asian residents, 63% have been vaccinated within the county and 37% out of the county. Among Hispanic residents, 62% were vaccinated in the county and 38% out of the county.
In addition, white residents are getting vaccinated at state-run mass vaccination sites and county-run clinics at about equal numbers — about 21% for each.
Among Black residents, 29% have received doses through county clinics compared to 11% at mass vaccination sites. About 26% of Asian residents and 27% of Hispanic residents received doses at county clinics versus 14% at mass vaccination sites.
“We’re continuing to look at our data to refine the work that we’re doing to make sure that we have maximum impact in terms of getting doses into folks’ arms,” Gayles said.
As vaccine clinics in Prince George’s County and D.C. transition away from offering appointments and instead move toward all walk-up sites for vaccine doses, Montgomery County officials said they still have about 34,000 residents on the county’s preregistration list who have not been offered vaccine appointments yet.
But Earl Stoddard, the director of the county’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said he expects the county’s mass vaccination site at the Germantown campus of Montgomery College to continue to evolve.
At that site, some 2,100 appointments per week come from Montgomery County’s preregistration list, and the remainder of appointments are allocated to the state’s list.
“We have largely worked our way through the state’s list,” Stoddard said. “We have about a week’s worth of appointments left and we’re not getting them as fast as we’re putting them out.”
He said the Germantown site could start offering walk-up appointments or transition to a hybrid model.
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