2021 | Coronavirus

County Council members reiterate their frustration, criticism over vaccine supply

State says distribution aligns with population ; Elrich, Hogan agree to coordinate

County Council President Tom Hucker, left, and Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz

Photos from Montgomery County

Two Montgomery County Council members reiterated on Monday their criticism of the number of COVID-19 vaccine doses the state is supplying. They say the county isn’t getting its fair share, a frustration that’s been brewing for weeks.

While the state says it is distributing vaccine doses largely in alignment with population, many of the doses it is counting are going to pharmacies, hospitals and other health-related entities. For example, less than a third of this week’s supply of doses went directly to the county for its vaccine clinics.

County officials say this leaves them behind the curve on their vaccination rollout. The state, however, say it’s hamstrung by not getting adequate support from the federal government.

Later in the day, however, there were signs that coordination between the state and the county might improve.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, posted on Twitter on Monday that Hogan had a “positive and productive discussion this afternoon with Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich. They agreed on ways to coordinate more closely on vaccine distribution.”

Elrich responded to Ricci on Twitter and wrote that he had a “really positive conversation on how to more effectively coordinate.”

“We both want people vaccinated and are in sync on how we get there. Just need an increase in supply which neither of us can control — but we’re ready to do more when it arrives,” Elrich wrote.

County Council Member Nancy Navarro also replied to Ricci on Twitter and thanked him.

“It’s crucial that we work closely to address this challenge in order to protect our residents and get the economy back on track,” she wrote.

During a session with reporters Monday morning, County Council President Tom Hucker presented data that show that the county government’s allocation of first doses of the vaccine is lower than in smaller counties, adjusted for population. The state Health Department provided the data, he said.

The vaccines currently being used require two doses, spaced weeks apart. The number of “first” doses is higher, with many more people needing the initial vaccination for now.

The state chart shows that Montgomery County had received 2.6 first doses per 100 residents — or about 26,900 doses for a population of roughly 1.1 million — as of Saturday.

Out of 24 jurisdictions’ health departments, Montgomery’s rate of doses per 100 people is the fourth lowest, according to the chart. Prince George’s County, with a population of about 900,000, had the lowest rate, at 1.7 first doses per 100 people.

In comparison, smaller counties, such as Kent and Somerset have received 8.2 and 7.4 first doses per 100 people, respectively. Kent’s population is about 20,000 and Somerset’s is about 26,000.

The state and the county are vaccinating people according to a phasing system that prioritizes health workers on the front lines, then people who are older or who have underlying health conditions.

Appointments began Monday for residents age 75 and older in Phase 1B. County staff members have been sending emails with appointment request links to those who have preregistered and are eligible.

Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, said staff members send emails as quickly as possible.

Charlie Gischlar, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat late Monday afternoon that the counties’ weekly vaccine allocations are calculated based on population.

“It is also important to understand that most weeks, the state sets a minimum allocation for each county so that no county is left without doses for the week (unless there is a specific request),” Gischlar wrote. “The minimum weekly allocation sometimes represents a disproportionately higher share of the smallest counties’ populations.”

Any imbalance caused by that arrangement “represents a relatively low number of total doses,” he wrote.

Montgomery’s allocation of doses this week — 18,825 — is proportional to its share of the state’s population, which is about 17%, according to Gischlar.

But not all of those 18,825 doses go to the county government. That allocation includes doses sent to hospitals, Giant pharmacies, the National Institutes of Health, and Kaiser Permanente in Gaithersburg.

Here’s the allocation breakdown of this week’s shipment (18,825 total doses):
● 8,775 doses to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda
● 5,500 doses to the county’s health department
● 1,950 doses to Kaiser Permanente in Gaithersburg
● 1,600 doses to Giant pharmacies (400 to each of the four pharmacies)
● 1,000 doses to NIH

During the press conference Monday morning, Hucker and Council Vice President Gabe Albonroz repeated county officials’ calls for more clarity, communication and coordination from the state.

“There is no reason for the state to not be sharing more doses with us. … We have the facilities. We have the vaccinators. We have the staff support,” Hucker said. “The only thing we don’t have is enough vaccines.”

Albornoz said the county also has the largest elderly population and has six hospitals that serve the region, not just the county. In addition, the county has the highest number of confirmed deaths from the coronavirus in the state, he said.

“It’s quite understandable, from the state perspective, to allocate based on percentages of population,” Albornoz siad. “But that is only part of the story. If we’re going to address this pandemic on a regional basis, we have to address the areas that have been the hardest hit.”

The county government should be receiving its fair share of the vaccine doses, “not half, or a third, or a quarter of what smaller, rural counties are currently receiving,” Hucker said.

Hucker said Hogan sent a text message to Maryland residents over the weekend that indicated that the county should be vaccinating people in Phase 1C — even though the county just started Phase 1B on Monday.

“You can see how that would create widespread confusion,” he said.

When Hogan makes decisions without collaboration, it makes the county’s job more difficult, Hucker said.

State health officials have been repeatedly asked if they could talk to and share information with county residents.

But someone from the state did not show up to a community town hall meeting the council hosted last week, “even after we were assured they would,” Hucker said. There was no reason why the state Health Department, which has about 3,000 employees, could not have sent someone, he said.

“Apparently, this is a strategy on their behalf,” he said, adding that health officials told him that they are declining all requests to speak to residents across the state. “Questions will not be going away.”

Gischlar wrote in a response to Bethesda Beat that Hucker was incorrect and that no firm commitment was made on a representative attending the town hall.

“Due to ongoing COVID-19 response efforts, all MDH staff are committed to getting shots in arms as quickly as possible,” he wrote. “We have declined all other town hall requests currently.”

Gischlar rebuffed comments that the state is not including the county in vaccination planning.

He wrote the state considers the counties to be “some of our most important vaccination partners.” He did not indicate how the counties are being included in planning beyond weekly vaccine allocations and the flexibility on when they vaccinate priority groups.

The state is receiving 10,000 doses a day from the federal government for the 2 million people currently eligible to receive the vaccines, Gischlar wrote.

“It will simply be impossible for us to meet statewide demand for vaccines until the federal government is able to provide us with more doses each week, and not everyone will be able to get vaccinated right away,” he wrote.

Elrich could not be immediately reached Monday evening. Ricci also could not be immediately reached Monday afternoon to respond to comments Hucker and Albornoz made during their press briefing earlier in the day.

The county will get additional help vaccinating residents and workers.

Gayles said Adventist HealthCare and Holy Cross Health were setting up vaccine clinics on Monday. In addition, Suburban Hospital in Bethesda might give the county some extra doses, he said.

Adventist owns and operates White Oak Medical Center in Silver Spring and Shady Grove Medical Center in Rockville. Holy Cross owns and operates a hospital in Germantown and one in Silver Spring.

According to Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the county’s health department, the hospitals are running their own appointments.

“I am not sure about the prioritization that they are following,” she said.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.