2021 | Coronavirus

County officials urge state to speed up vaccine rollout

Hogan spokesman says criticism misguided, state meeting county’s request

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Pictured are Moderna COVID-19 vaccine doses from the initial 100 delivered to Montgomery County officials on Dec. 23.

Photo from Montgomery County

Frustrated with the pace of Maryland’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Montgomery County officials urged Gov. Larry Hogan and state health officials to provide more vaccine doses to the county and other jurisdictions that need them.

County Council members said during a briefing on Tuesday that although the county is doing well getting doses out quickly, it needs more doses from the state.

However, Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said the state is providing the county what it requested.

On Tuesday, county officials expect to be finished administering all 12,900 Moderna vaccine doses that it received. They expected another 6,700 doses of the two-dose vaccine to come from the state Tuesday.

The vaccine shipment is a decrease from last week’s shipment of 8,600 doses.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require a second dose three to four weeks after a first dose is administered. County officials will begin to administer second doses this week.

Dr. Raymond Crowel, director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, told the council that the number of people who need second doses is going up as the county moves forward with vaccinations.

“What we don’t know is how many doses the state is going to send to us to continue round one dosing and what the total number of doses is going to be,” he said.

Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz questioned why Maryland has been behind Virginia with vaccinations. He noted that as of Monday, Virginia had administered about 40,000 more doses than Maryland and had begun vaccinating people age 75 and older.

Albornoz said that Virginia, which has a greater population than Maryland, and D.C., which has a smaller population than Maryland, are both moving more quickly than Maryland.

“There’s just understandable frustration, confusion and, frankly, growing anger that our state has not been able to move more quickly. … It’s also troubling that we don’t know exactly how many vaccines the state has at its disposal and in some ways, we’re flying blind in terms of how we’re able to administer our own vaccines here,” he said.

In an email to Bethesda Beat on Tuesday afternoon, Ricci disputed that the state has not been transparent or provided clear communication.

He noted that Hogan had a press conference last week with information on how the state obtains vaccines from the federal government.

“We place our orders, and then notify providers right away,” Ricci wrote.

Hogan also announced last week that the state would begin deploying Maryland National Guard emergency vaccination support teams to local health departments to help administer the vaccine shots and provide logistical support.

“We also post every day on the governor’s Twitter how many vaccines we have delivered,” Ricci wrote. “We have also announced our current pace of federal allocation is 72,000, with no change in sight right now. So the county can expect a fairly stable supply.”

The state is doing vaccinations according to a phased system that prioritizes need based on duties, age and health conditions.

Front-line medical workers are at the top of the list in Phase 1A. Also included in Phase 1A are long-term care facilities, first responders, vaccinators, medical providers and others. The phases and tiers are explained here.

Dr. James Bridgers, the county’s deputy health officer, said he heard that some smaller counties that have completed Phase 1A and have leftover vaccine doses to move to Phase 1B were asked to hold because state officials are “trying to move in unison.”

Ricci wrote that that isn’t true and he has shared information on his Twitter account regarding other counties moving into Phase 1B.

“I’ve been retweeting local health departments who are moving ahead to 75+ [age range], so clearly we are okay with it,” he wrote.

Dr. Earl Stoddard, executive director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, told the County Council that the state seems to have misestimated where the priority group populations were in the state.

Some jurisdictions received more doses than they had people in Phase 1A and could complete the phase over the first week of vaccinations, he said, then wanted to move into Phase 1B with the extra doses they had.

“I think if those distributions had been more accurate in their distribution across the state, we would have been further into our [Phase] 1A,” Stoddard said. He added that larger jurisdictions are lagging behind in completing the first phase because there are more people to cover.

If other jurisdictions begin Phase 1B before Montgomery, the county will only be a few weeks behind, Stoddard said.

“But I think when we talk about weeks right now, that’s too long and I think we all agree with that,” he said.

Ricci wrote that the county has received more vaccine doses than any other county in the state.

“We have honored every request made by the health officer,” he wrote. “Example: the county health officer requested 5-10K doses, and we allocated 6,700. We were able to go 34% above his minimum request.”

But Bridgers told the council on Tuesday that the county’s health department requested around 12,000 doses.

Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the county’s health department, provided a copy of an email from the county’s immunization program manager to two state health department officials, making a request on Friday for 10,000 to 15,000 doses “for the next week.”

But Ricci wrote that state officials received a request from the county for 5,000 to 10,000 doses as a request for this week and 10,000 to 15,000 doses for next week.

“It would be odd, wouldn’t it, for them to complain about lags in deliveries and allocations from the state, and confusion about when they’ll get what, if they waited until Friday to make requests?” Ricci wrote. “We start having discussions for the following week on Tuesdays.”

As far as a broader rollout, the state will need to activate primary-care providers, so they can request and administer doses to broaden the distribution to residents.

Stoddard said private health care providers will be necessary to scale up vaccinations.

The limitation in moving through phases more quickly is the pace of vaccine distribution from the state, he said.

The county’s capacity for vaccination is around 2,500 to 3,500 doses per day.

Albornoz said the state needs to be accountable.

“It’s clearly a supply and demand issue,” he said. “The state needs to reallocate and pivot its policies immediately in order for us to be able to vaccinate the regions in which there has been the highest concentration of spread, the greatest amount of deaths, and it is absurd that we have not been able to achieve that.”

Albornoz said state officials have not been transparent, provided clear communication or done their job.

Council Member Evan Glass, echoing the idea that the state isn’t providing enough doses, said at the meeting that the county is receiving half of what it asked for in this week’s shipment.

“Because we only learn about our allotments on a week-to-week basis, there’s no way for us to properly plan ahead and provide the types of schedules that other jurisdictions are sharing with their residents,” Glass said.

“We need the state to step up and provide us more of what we need, so we can better communicate with our residents and give them the timetables that they will quickly add to their calendars, so they can try to begin resuming some semblance of normalcy.”

As more vaccine doses are administered, the county is preparing to focus on to residents aged 75 and older in a few weeks.

Bridgers told the County Council that officials have started to look at how to advance to future tiers.

Part of that planning is figuring out how the vaccine doses will be administered — whether through clinics or teams being sent to assisted living communities not covered by the federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens pharmacies for distribution.

Bridgers said officials might set up a phone line that older people could call to register for the vaccine. Adults age 75 and older are eligible for the vaccine in Tier 1 of Phase 1B.

An estimated 15,000 medical providers need to be vaccinated, but not all are expected to sign up or come in, which would allow the county to move to Phase 1B sooner. About 180,000 residents are age 65 and older.

No registration information has been set up or distributed yet for anyone outside the current vaccine Tiers 1 and 2 of Phase 1A.

The county has also begun vaccinating certain groups in Tier 3 of Phase 1A, including detention center staff members, law enforcement (patrol and others who work with the public), Fire and Rescue staff members, and 911 dispatchers.

Council Member Craig Rice expressed concern over an increase in the number of cases among children.

Of the county’s confirmed cases, 5.5% have been in children up to age 9. The rate has been stable around 5% since May, but goes up and down slightly, Stoddard said.

Children and young adults age 10 to 19 make up 8% of the county’s cases. In September, the rate spiked to almost 16%, according to Stoddard.

But COVID-19 vaccines have not been approved for children in the United States yet, bringing concerns for another potential full semester of virtual classes for schools.

On Tuesday, the Montgomery County Board of Education voted 7-1 to delay its reopening plan for the third time. The schools were anticipated to reopen Feb. 1, but the date was pushed to at least March 15.

School Board member Rebecca Smondrowski voted against the extended delay.

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