2021 | Coronavirus

UPDATED: People trying to ‘skip the line’ to get COVID-19 vaccine, health officer says

Appointments for those 75 and older expected to open next week

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

File photo

This story was updated at 9:01 p.m. on Jan. 21, 2021, to include comments from two state officials.

As Montgomery County residents forward registration links for COVID-19 vaccine appointments, people who are not eligible yet are signing up for appointments, only to be turned away at clinics.

Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, said during a media briefing on Thursday, that officials are investigating how the link was distributed and how many people registered even though they are not eligible yet.

Access to the link allowed some people to “skip the line” to set up an appointment, which won’t be tolerated, to preserve a “fair and equitable” rollout, Gayles said.

On Wednesday morning, several residents who were at least 75 or who worked in ineligible industries were turned away from at least one clinic because they signed up for appointments, but aren’t eligible in Phase 1A. Gayles did not name the clinic.

The county has divided vaccine dose distribution into phases, each with priority groups. Those groups are then broken down into tiers.

Currently, only people eligible to receive a vaccine in Phase 1A can register for an appointment. In Phase 1A, 50,000 to 60,000 people in the county are eligible.

The county has opened up preregistration for residents age 75 and older, who are in Tier 1 of Phase 1B.

Preregistration allows people to submit information on their eligibility and contact information. Once the county accepts the information and has opened up appointments to older residents in Tier 1 of Phase 1B, the county will send them a registration link for appointments.

More than 68,000 people age 75 and older were preregistered as of Thursday afternoon. Roughly 75,000 people are eligible in that age range in the county.

People who are not in Phase 1A or at least 75 years old should not be preregistering yet. They have to wait until the county starts their preregistration process.

Once eligibility opens for preregistration for Phase 1B’s other tiers and for Phase 1C, the county will open up registration portals for those groups.

Gayles said people who are signing up for appointments and aren’t eligible might take away spots from people who are more at risk of contracting COVID-19 or having more severe symptoms if they catch the virus.

“We do recognize that some folks were simply doing what they thought was appropriate because someone sent them a link,” he said. “But I will say this very clearly to anyone else who is scrupulously utilizing the links or trying to register ahead of time: We will have zero tolerance for that behavior.”

Unauthorized registrations for appointments slow the process for the county to distribute vaccines, he said.

There is a prioritization system because of a limited supply of doses and to make sure that those who have greater risk of exposure will be vaccinated first, he said.

County officials urged residents to be patient. They noted that the doses the state is sending are being completely or nearly used up every week before the next distribution.

The state receives 72,000 to 74,000 doses a week, then divides and distributes those among hospitals and local health departments.

Montgomery County received 11,900 doses on Tuesday — 7,300 for first doses and 4,600 for second doses. The vaccines require two doses administered three to four weeks apart.

“The state doesn’t have the ability to give us more vaccines because they themselves aren’t getting more vaccine,” County Executive Marc Elrich said Tuesday. “It’s a very limited supply and we are moving through it as quickly as we can.”

County officials usually find out how many doses they will receive from the state each week over the weekend, Elrich said, but this week, they were told on Monday — a day before the shipment would be received.

It’s difficult to plan and schedule for appointments at clinics when you “don’t know what you’re going to get until the day before you get them,” Elrich said.

The county has received about 27,000 first doses of vaccine so far.

“We need a larger allocation from the state to match our population. We are preregistering so that once we have the vaccine and can begin vaccinating people in [Phase] 1B, we can set up the appointments,” Elrich said.

Regular updates are sent to residents who sign up for alerts. A call center staffed by 30 people will soon be set up to help residents with registration and questions.

Some have been confused by Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcements opening up eligibility in Maryland for certain groups before the county is ready to accept those groups, Elrich said. He added that he believes the governor plans to open up eligibility for residents 65 to 74 years old.

“He’s going to create a group that thinks they’re immediately eligible for the vaccine,” Elrich said. “They are eligible, but he’s not increasing the amount of vaccine beyond 7,000 new doses.

“I can move you up in a line. I can put you in a line that you weren’t in before, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to get vaccinated any faster unless the number of vaccines that we get actually increases.”

Elrich said that around 1.8 million residents in the state are eligible for the vaccine in Phases 1A, 1B, and 1C, but only 300,000 have been vaccinated so far.

“That leaves 1.5 million people to share 72,000 vaccines a week. It’s going to be a while,” he said. “There are reasons to be hopeful. There are new companies that will likely get approval [for vaccines] within the next month or so.”

Charlie Gischlar, a spokesman for the state’s health department, wrote in an email Thursday evening that Montgomery County has received the most vaccine doses of any county health department.

“Their allocation continues to be fair and equitable based on their share of the population,” he wrote.

He provided a list of the number of first doses the county has received in the past four shipments:
• Week 3: 4,200
• Week 4: 8,600
• Week 5: 6,700
• Week 6: 7,300

Elrich criticized the state for not providing advance notice of Hogan’s announcements and not including local officials in the planning process for vaccination information released by the state and distributions of the vaccine.

“We got no notice when he announces that [Phase] 1B — the seniors — are now eligible with no ability for us to adjust our systems to deal with it, using a state system that doesn’t take into account where we were in terms of vaccinating people in [Phase] 1A, which was the governor’s original priority,” he said. “We’re not able to plan with them.”

Elrich said the state’s information on the county’s vaccinations initially listed a phone number for Gayles’ desk number and directed them to the county’s website when the county hadn’t opened up preregistration for residents age 75 and older at the time.

“This is where sitting down a few days in advance, letting us know what they want to do and asking us what we’re prepared to do, asking us what our systems look like right now — so we could have planned an orderly rollout of this,” Elrich said. “That’s all we’re asking for.

“I’m not asking [Hogan] to manufacture vaccines. We just want his departments to work with us, so we’re all coordinated with each other, and that’s what we’re not right now.”

When asked by Bethesda Beat for comments on county officials’ criticisms and concerns with the state, Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, wrote in an email Thursday night that not all of the statements were true.

“I’ve reached out to county officials directly to discuss this because a number of things in here are false,” he wrote, referring to a list of questions in an email.

Bethesda Beat specifically asked about officials’ comments regarding the state’s communication with the county, the county’s involvement in planning, the state’s handling of the rollout, and problems with the state’s vaccine appointment system.

When asked if the county is considering loosening restrictions on restaurants in the county, as some jurisdictions in the region are doing, Elrich said the county is not where it needs to be yet.

But when those restrictions are lifted, there will most likely be a limit on the amount of time that each patron can be seated as a table, he said.

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