Swift vaccine rollout for children 5-11 in Montgomery Co. a ‘game-changer’ for less disruption to schools

If all goes according to plan and federal health authorities authorize the use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children under 12 by early next month, officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, say they will be able to hit the ground running with administering thousands of shots the first week.

Montgomery County, which already has one of the highest vaccination rates in the region — and in the U.S. — plans to ask for 20,000 pediatric doses of the vaccine per week, which is the maximum amount the state is allowing jurisdictions to request, according to Earl Stoddard, the county’s chief assistant administrative officer, during an online news briefing Wednesday.

County Executive Marc Elrich said there are more than 100,000 county residents between the ages of 5 and 11.

The officials’ discussion came the same day the Biden administration released an action plan for inoculating 28 million American children that aims to avoid the problems with the vaccine rollout seen last winter, when a crush of demand and limited supplies overwhelmed local health departments and pharmacies.

Along with ample supplies of the lower-dose Pfizer shot for children, the White House plan calls for distributing the doses directly to pediatricians.

“We won’t be the only game in town, but we certainly know that we will be one of the bigger games in town. And we’ll obviously be focusing a lot of our energy on addressing those people who don’t have access to a pediatrician,” Stoddard said.

About 70% of pediatric providers in the county have expressed an interest in administering COVID-19 vaccines directly to their young patients.

The county already has a bit of head start, having expanded vaccine clinics to administer booster shots and third doses.

County health officials are still waiting on final guidance from the Maryland Department of Health for vaccinating youngsters but will present a more detailed rollout plan to the county council, acting as the board of health, next Tuesday.

Once approved, vaccinations of young children are expected to significantly ease disruptions at school, where children exposed to positive COVID-19 cases — including, sometimes, entire classrooms — have been sent home to quarantine.

As of Wednesday, some 350 Montgomery County Public School students were being quarantined.

“When those students are vaccinated, they will not have to quarantine. So obviously that’s a big game-changer,” Stoddard said.

Test-to-stay program ‘imminent’

Meanwhile, the county and the school system are still working to hammer out a “test-to-stay” plan, under which students exposed to the coronavirus are allowed to stay in classrooms as long as quickly administered rapid tests indicate they continue to test negative and they show no symptoms.

Stoddard said the program operating in pilot is “imminent.” A meeting with school officials is scheduled for Thursday.

Working with the school system, the county is planning for a 100-member mobile unit to administer rapid tests across the county with a goal of cutting down on large quarantines.

So far, slower than expected hiring has hampered things a bit. The county had initially expected to have 60 testers on board by the end of last week. The number is currently 48, officials said Wednesday.

“We definitely don’t have all the staff we need to fully build out as much as we’d like,” Stoddard said. But, he added, “We’ve got enough now where we believe we can move forward with something pretty soon.”

Officials said the focus on minimizing disruptions to classroom learning by deploying rapid tests took the focus off a countywide testing program for county workers who aren’t vaccinated. Under the current policy, county workers were supposed to have submitted their vaccination statuses by Sept. 18 or submit to weekly testing.

By and large, the testing program for unvaccinated workers is not up and running yet, Stoddard said.

“The limited rapid tests that we had on hand we actually pushed toward the school system,” he said.

Separately, the county council is considering an even stricter vaccine mandate that would remove the option to test weekly instead of getting vaccinated.

Elrich has said he supports a vaccine mandate in principle, but that he’s worried the council proposal would lead to staffing shortages in public safety agencies.

He released an assessment of staffing levels across the Fire and Rescue Service, the police department and the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation.

In the report, the fire department said the current staffing situation is “dire,” and that a vaccine mandate “only adds additional staffing pressure and puts FRS at extreme risk for severe degradation of service (loss of total service and increased response times for remaining services) that will be immediate, noticeable, and long-lasting.”

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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