‘The harder part is ahead’ — pace of vaccinations slows in Montgomery Co.

Montgomery County, Maryland, is seeing the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations slow — and people in their 20s and 30s seem to be driving the slump, health officials told members of the County Council during a hearing Tuesday morning.

Montgomery County residents are among the most vaccinated in Maryland. As of Tuesday, 54% of all residents had received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, making the county one of only a few in the state over 50%.

But last week saw a 19% reduction in vaccine uptake across all providers in the county, said Dr. Earl Stoddard, the director of the county’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Compared to the average pace of vaccinations over the previous five weeks, last week marked an even bigger dip — a 25% reduction.

“This is consistent with numbers that are being seen across the country, so this is not a Montgomery County-specific phenomenon,” Stoddard said. “We are seeing a reduction in vaccine uptake and I speculate that No. 1, the people who were really gung-ho to get the vaccine have largely gotten it,” Stoddard said.

He added, “Now, we’re moving into that next tier, which is not necessarily the people who are hesitant but the people who have other barriers or impediments, or for whom there isn’t the same sense of urgency to get vaccinated.”

Stoddard said the county is working on ways to remove barriers to getting vaccinated, to make getting a shot as simple as possible.

In addition to those who are truly dead-set against being vaccinated or those who are expressing some reservations about doing so, there are some people “who are willing to be vaccinated if the opportunity is made more convenient,” he said, such as by having expanded hours on nights and weekends at vaccine clinics.

Broken out by age group, people in their 20s and 30s are getting vaccinated at a lower rate than their older counterparts, according to the county’s health officer, Dr. Travis Gayles.

As it stands now, about 85% of residents 65 and older have received at least one vaccine dose, compared to 70% of people 40 to 64.

However, residents younger than 40 — who only became eligible for the shots in the last month — are lagging behind, with just 56% having received at least one dose.

“We’ve had great success in getting our older populations covered,” Gayles said. “We now have … close to 80% of those age groups being fully vaccinated. We’re continuing to see increases in the percentage for the 40-to-64 year old group. The area that seems to be lagging behind is our 17-to-39-year-olds.”

All Maryland residents 16 and older became eligible for the shots April 6.

Gayles referred to demographic as the “doughnut group,” saying he suspected it would continue to pose the most challenges even after the Pfizer vaccine is approved for use in young people ages 12-15.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to authorize Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine as for young people as early as next week.

Gayles said the county is already planning how to target vaccinations to a newly-eligible population of teens if the FDA approves Pfizer’s emergency-use application, meeting with officials in both the public school system and nonpublic schools.

“Our team has been working on looking at logistics in terms of how to best be able to provide that, whether that would be going to school directly or creating central sites for adolescents and young adults to come in.”

Council member Andrew Friedson, who represents District 1, said it made sense to consider vaccinating students directly in schools, “particularly when we have (students) in one concentrated area” and in a “key point of entry.” But, with the end of the school year approaching, Friedson said the opportunity to vaccinate students in schools is “fleeting.”

At-large Council member Hans Riemer suggested the county take a page from other states, which have offered incentives for people getting vaccinated, by offering movie passes or restaurant gift cards.

Gov. Larry Hogan said Monday eligible state employees could receive $100 if they get both vaccine doses and receive a future booster shot, if necessary.

“As we’re seeing from the changing pace of vaccinations, we’re gonna have to work harder,” Riemer said. “Not that anything was easy, but the easier part in a sense, is sort of behind us. The harder part is ahead of us, and we’re probably going to need to work harder to get all the way to the finish line.”

The slowing demand for the shots is causing the county — which once saw a furious digital race to secure appointments — shift to allowing more walk-up appointment at its Germantown mass vaccine site.

The county is continuing to make appointments for the site, but it will also offering walk-up slots every day from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Stoddard said.

“If you just have a few minutes at your lunch break, you want to run over and get vaccinated, we’re going to accommodate you there too,” he said.

County health officials said they have “exhausted” the once-considerable preregistration list, as well as the preregistration list supplied by the State of Maryland for people signing up for a shot at the county’s mass vaccine site.

Gayles’ office has been working to identify and communicate with homebound residents who need shots, and he said the county, working with its Aging and Disability Resource Unit, aimed to start performing vaccinations for that group by the end of the week.


More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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