When COVID-19 vaccines are available for children between ages 5 and 11, Montgomery County, Maryland, officials want to be ready, and they told the County Council that challenges remain.
County officials estimate that 105,000 children are in the 5-to-11 age group, and Sean O’Donnell, with the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, told council members and school officials on Tuesday that when Food and Drug Administration approval is given, the plan is for the county and private providers to be able to vaccinate between 25% and 30% of children in that age group in each of the first two weeks.
“A huge percentage of people came out in the first week” when vaccines were first made available for 12- to 18-year-olds, said O’Donnell. “So I think we can expect to see that” when the vaccines are approved for use in younger children.
But there are different challenges ahead, said Dr. Earl Stoddard, assistant chief administrative officer for the county: “We have been hemorrhaging school health staff for months” he told council members.
Stoddard said the shortage was due in part to the toll the pandemic has taken on the health care industry as a whole. “We’ve burned our health care system out over the past 20 months,” he said. “It is incredibly difficult to hire clinical staff of any kind.”
Mary Anderson, the public information officer for Montgomery County’s Department of Health and Human Services, said there are currently 20 vacancies for nurses and 20 more for health room technicians in the county’s schools.
In both categories, those numbers will change: Nine nurse positions have been filled, with start dates coming up, and eight health-room techs are in the pipeline to get selection letters from the county, Anderson said.
Council President Tom Hucker asked Stoddard what could be done to stop the loss of health care staffers. Stoddard replied that “We’ve got to conduct a study of the positions to allow us to, frankly, change the compensation model.”
Stoddard added that the county is having success hiring school-based health contractors to take part in the Montgomery County school system’s “test-to-stay” program. The contractors would be assisting with contact tracing, testing and, eventually, vaccinations.
By Tuesday, 23 contractors were in place, and Stoddard said it’s hoped that 50 contractors will be hired by Friday, with plans for a total of 150 to be hired.
At the same time, the school system has been promoting its Say Yes to the Test program, which encourages families to allow their children to receive COVID-19 tests at school. Jimmy D’Andrea, chief of staff for the Montgomery County school system, said more than 40,000 families have signed up to allow for the testing.
The county is still waiting to learn from the state how many vaccines it will receive, and is preparing multiple contingency plans.
More details about the sites where the children will be able to get the vaccines will be discussed at the county’s meeting Oct. 26.
“We identify we want to make sure that they are equitable and accessible” by transport, by bicycle and on foot, said Dr. James Bridgers, the county’s acting health officer and chief of public health services.
Bridgers said vaccine sites will not be set up at all 209 county schools: “That’s just not practical based on the resource challenges that we currently have.”
Stoddard said the equitable distribution of future vaccine sites will take into account the providers offering vaccines, such as pediatricians, grocery stores and pharmacies.
“And to be clear, it’s not just the public schools that we’re thinking about,” Stoddard said. “We’re looking at large sites that are geographic in nature that can serve non-public and public school students at the same time.”
WTOP’s Colleen Kelleher contributed to this report.
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