‘We need help,’ Prince George’s Co. says amid criticism of slow coronavirus vaccine rollout

Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks addresses the county’s coronavirus vaccine rollout during a news conference Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2020. (Courtesy Prince George’s County Executive)

Officials in Prince George’s County, Maryland, acknowledged the rollout of the county’s COVID-19 vaccination effort has been sluggish, but said they anticipate “ramping up our efforts significantly” in the next week.

Speaking during a news conference Wednesday, County Executive Angela Alsobrooks also said the county, which has been among the hardest hit by the virus, doesn’t need criticism from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan — who announced several steps earlier this week to speed up vaccinations — but more help.

“We’ve experienced some initial delays, and we have to be honest with you about that, because the truth is we have needed help, and we’re working to get that help,” Alsobrooks said.

On Thursday, a team of four National Guard members and five support staff, will arrive in the county to help perform vaccinations, part of a statewide emergency effort Hogan announced Tuesday.

For now, the county is still in the very beginning stages of its vaccination efforts, and Alsobrooks and other officials are cautioning county residents that it will be months before members of the general public can line up for shots.

Under Phase 1A of the rollout, the county has just received its first batch of about 3,700 vaccine doses from the state and has used them to vaccinate front-line health care workers who are vaccinating others before moving on to other front-line health care workers and front-line first responders.

Alsobrooks said the county is pushing to move to the next phase of the vaccine rollout by the beginning of February. Under Phase 1B of the vaccination plan, adults over 75 and essential workers, such as teachers and child care workers, would be vaccinated.

Following that, Phase 1C includes people age 65 to 74 and other essential workers, such as grocery store workers and public transit workers.

Prince George’s County Health Officer Dr. Earl Carter laid out a slightly more conservative timeline for completing the first phase of the rollout, saying it could take into the second half of February, but stressed, “We are determined to get through Phase 1A as quickly as we can.”

Phase 2 of the vaccine rollout isn’t expected until April. This stage would include people age 16-64 with certain medical conditions and additional essential workers, before the general public can expect to sign up to get vaccinated.

“If we can start to vaccinate everyone else in the county by late spring or early summer, there’s a chance we can start talking about herd immunity by next fall and that would be absolutely wonderful.

It means we can get back to a semblance of normal. However, we have a lot of work to do. And it will take a lot of collaboration to make this work,” Carter said.

In the coming weeks, three vaccinations sites are set to open in the county. By the end of this week, the county’s Sports and Learning Complex will open and be used as a staging ground to vaccinate first responders in the county’s fire and EMS department who are eligible, Alsobrooks said. That will be followed by the D. Leonard Dyer Regional Center in Clinton and a vaccination site in Laurel both in the coming weeks.

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Alsobrooks responds to governor’s criticism: ‘Upsetting’

In addition to emergency National Guard teams to bolster vaccination efforts, Hogan announced other steps Tuesday to speed up the vaccine rollout in Maryland, including a get-tough approach under which facilities that don’t administer at least 75% of total first doses could see their future allocations of dose reduced.

“Our message to those responsible for vaccinations is clear: either use the doses that you have been allocated, or they will be redirected to another facility or provider, where they will be used immediately,” Hogan said.

In particular, Hogan singled out Prince George’s County for slow vaccine rollout on Tuesday, saying less than 5% of the vaccines distributed by the state in the county have actually been administered.

Responding to the governor’s criticism, Alsobrooks called it “upsetting.”

“It’s no secret that there has been a severe health equity issue in Prince George’s County for a very long time, and COVID-19 has caused it to be exposed,” Alsobrooks said. “The infrastructure here has not been what it should be. And so we don’t need criticism, we need help.”

She added, “We absolutely want to put vaccines in the arms of all our residents. This jurisdiction was the one that was hardest hit. But it’s also the one that has been neglected, really, if we’re honest about it for decades now.”

Overcoming hesitancy: ‘People, go get the vaccine’

Part of the reason for the slow rollout of the vaccines has been hesitancy by health care workers to receive it, officials acknowledged.

“There is a hesitancy in the hospital systems as well as across the board,” Carter said. “The hospital systems are working hard to overcome that. … It’s not time to take it away from them quite yet. I mean, if it’s prolonged for a very, very long time that they’re not using vaccines, that’s one thing. But not enough time has gone by yet, and they’re working really hard to make sure that their personnel get vaccinated.”

Alsobrooks pointed to the historical lack of trust in the medical community by African Americans and spoke in personal terms about her own hesitancy in getting the vaccine.

“I’m going to tell you truth — I’m not a person who would rush, ordinarily, to get a vaccine,” Alsobrooks said. “I’m sure my team is going to cringe when they hear me say (that). They said, ‘Go get the vaccine.’ I’m a person who doesn’t even get the flu shot.”

The county executive said she was convinced by Carter, the county’s health officer, that it was safe and effective and the only side effect she experienced was slight soreness at the injection site.

“People, go get the vaccine,” Alsobrooks said. “Let’s do this, and let’s save the lives of the people we love.”

Even as planning has turned to the vaccine rollout, officials said the county is continuing to see a spike in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

“We are still very much, unfortunately, in the midst of a surge,” Alsobrooks said. “This was my fear and concern, especially over the holiday.”

The positivity rate — the percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive — is now 11.7%, which is more than double the recommended rate of 5%. The county is also monitoring hospitalizations, which have been on the rise since November.

Carter said the county is in an “active outbreak” based on the metrics. “We absolutely do not want our hospitals to become overrun. That’s very critical,” Carter said.

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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