2021 | Coronavirus

Van Hollen agrees with council on need for more COVID-19 vaccine transparency

County working on equity distribution plan for vaccines

The Montgomery County Council discuss COVID-19 vaccine distribution with Sen. Chris Van Hollen on Friday afternoon.

After weeks of Montgomery County officials calling for more transparency and clarity on the COVID-19 vaccine distribution, Sen. Chris Van Hollen echoed their concerns, saying residents are getting confused.

During a virtual meeting with the County Council on Friday afternoon, Van Hollen said more transparency is needed in the entire vaccine distribution process.

Residents are frustrated because depending on where they sign up for a vaccine, their eligibility is different, he said.

“If you go to your hospital or pharmacy system, you could be in one of the other tiers [than the county] and it’s just not transparent exactly who’s able to get [the vaccine], what criteria are began applied, what screens are being applied when you go through those channels as opposed to the county channel,” Van Hollen said. “Even in a single county, depending on what door you go in, different screens are applied as to the eligibility and criteria and that’s creating a lot of confusion.”

The federal congressional delegation will ask for more information from the state on its distribution process, he said, and will request to see some of the state vaccine contracts with private partners. Maryland has contracted with two, he said.

“The Biden administration is also working to short-circuit the process and do more mass inoculations,” he said. “The other constraint, of course, is the overall supply. That’s why we’re glad Johnson & Johnson will be coming online.”

Pfizer and Moderna currently have federally approval for their COVID-19 vaccines, which are being administered. Johnson & Johnson has developed a vaccine for the coronavirus and is working on applying for emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz said that one of the elements outside the county’s control is the vaccine distribution through private medical providers.

Several areas in the county continue to be disproportionately affected by the virus, he said.

“I think this is an opportunity for us to work collaboratively once again with our federal delegation,” Albornoz said, “to encourage our private sector partners to help ensure that the vaccine is going to where it is most needed, not to who is the most connected, not to who has the most time on their hands and the most technology at their disposal to actually be able to access the vaccines, but people who really need them.”

Council Member Craig Rice noted that across the state, 16% of African Americans and 4.6% of Hispanics have received vaccinations. But the minority populations have been found to have health disparities that put them more at risk to the virus.

“What I’m concerned about is that I fear folks, especially at the state level, lobbying around ‘vaccine hesitancy’ and using that as an excuse for why it is that our people of color aren’t receiving vaccinations,” Rice said. “I can tell you that while some vaccine hesitancy is real in our communities of color, the reality is that there are a lot of people out there who want this vaccine who aren’t getting it, who are on our waiting list.”

He said the county’s health department is working to come up with an equity distribution plan for the vaccines.

“We hope to have that in our hands sometime next week,” Rice said. “What we would hope is that you would pressure our governor to make sure that that equity plan is adopted by all folks who are distributing vaccine in the state of Maryland to make sure that we have that equitable distribution that we know is going to be so important to try to alleviate some of the concerns that we’ve seen, which is [a] higher number of deaths and higher number of cases amongst our people of color.”

Council members also talked with Van Hollen about broadband access, food security, bus rapid transit, federal funding for the National Institutes of Health, and continued aid for local governments, businesses and residents.

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