This story was updated at 4:07 p.m. on Feb. 23, 2021, to include news about a fourth mass vaccination site and to correct the opening date for the third site. It was also updated at 6:40 p.m. on Feb. 23, 2021, to update information from Hogan’s press conference and include a comment from the Maryland Department of Health.
Montgomery County still could get a COVID-19 mass vaccination site — but it might take a while.
Dr. Earl Stoddard, executive director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said Tuesday that Maryland health officials said they might consider opening more mass vaccination sites across the state, including in the county.
But that consideration will only come after the rest of the planned sites are opened.
“After they finish their first six, they said they may revisit the decision to put additional sites around the state, including Montgomery County,” Stoddard told the County Council. “But until they get those next three sites that they’ve got planned opened up and operating, they do not intend to open up a site in Montgomery County.”
Over the last few weeks, state delegates and county officials have repeatedly called for a mass vaccination site to be located in the county, which is the largest jurisdiction in the state.
State and county officials have debated whether, and when, the county needs a site.
As of Tuesday morning, three mass vaccination sites were open or were close to opening across the state: Six Flags America in Prince George’s County, the Baltimore Convention Center and M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. The stadium site opens on Thursday.
Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday afternoon that a fourth site will open no later than March 11 at Regency Furniture Stadium in Charles County. Two other locations in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore are being finalized.
Montgomery County has been noticeably left off the list.
The response from state officials has been that Six Flags can serve Montgomery County residents, many of whom have been vaccinated at the site.
During a press conference on Tuesday, Hogan said that the state is opening enough sites as it gets enough vaccine doses to supply them.
“Montgomery County has the largest population. It has the most vaccines. It has the most distribution points and it has the highest percentage of people being vaccinated,” he said. “So it’s not as big of a problem as some of the other areas, but certainly not something we would rule out if we get enough vaccines.”
Charlie Gischlar, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health, wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon that the state’s strategy focuses on developing sites in underserved and regional locations where they can serve the most residents, with the most efficiency.
“12.3% of Montgomery County residents have received their first doses, above the statewide average of 11.8%,” he wrote. “As vaccine supplies increase, and as we open the already-announced regional sites, we will then evaluate other locations as either community or mass vaccination sites.”
But delegates and local officials have argued that that heavy use of the Six Flags site by Montgomery County residents is a reason why the county needs its own site.
During a media briefing on Wednesday, Stoddard said the county is preparing at least one site with the needed infrastructure and planning, in hopes that the state approves it.
The county has proposed at least three locations as potential mass vaccination sites to the state health department, including the fairgrounds in Gaithersburg.
County officials have declined to name the other two sites, but County Executive Marc Elrich said last week that the county has a location that a property owner will let the county use. He did not identify the site and it was not clear if he was referring to the fairgrounds.
On Tuesday morning, before Hogan’s comments, the council reiterated its disappointment and frustration about a site not being located in the county.
Council Member Will Jawando said the council will continue to advocate for a site in the county.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense obviously with the largest jurisdiction and some of the highest cases and infection rates, and one of the most diverse populations, that you wouldn’t do that,” he said.
Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz said the state’s decision makes no sense.
“It is absurd that from a public health standpoint, we, as the largest jurisdiction in the [state], with the largest percentage of seniors, with the second largest percentage of minorities, have not even had a conversation about the development of a mass vaccination site here in Montgomery County,” he said. “We are ready, Gov. Hogan, to be able to stand up a mass vaccination site and have the capacity.”
Albornoz said there is a continued impression that Montgomery County does not have the same level of need for one as other jurisdictions.
“We are fortunate, on a number of different levels. But for goodness sakes, we certainly have that need here,” he said.
Council Member Evan Glass said Hogan also needs to expand the recently announced centralized registration system for the state’s mass vaccination sites.
“We also need the governor to expand the centralized registration to all vaccine providers — a true one-stop shop that residents are all begging us for,” he said.
The centralized system will be launched next month, Hogan said on Tuesday.
Hogan said that the U.K., South African and Brazilian variants of COVID-19 have all been identified in the state.
Dr. Jinlene Chan, the state’s acting deputy health secretary, said at the press conference that there have been 60 cases in Maryland identified with a variant. The U.K. variant has been among the most common of the three, she said.
The variants tend to be more transmissible, but the severity of the virus doesn’t appear to be increased.
The variants are identified in COVID-19 cases by using genomic sequencing.
Hogan said the state has entered into agreements with the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins Medicine to double the sequencing volume. The heath systems will help screen and sequence more than 10% of the COVID-19 cases in the state.
The partnership will increase sequencing capacity from 300 sequences per week to more than 700.
Meanwhile, another COVID-19 vaccine could soon be on the market.
Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine is being made at an Emergent BioSolutions plant in East Baltimore. Federal approval for the vaccine could happen as early as Friday, with distribution possibly starting next week, state officials said.
Staff writer Dan Schere contributed to this story.
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at email@example.com.