2021 | Schools

Botched COVID-19 vaccination clinic latest disappointment for high-needs community in Gaithersburg

Parents, advocates say MCPS, county need to rebuild trust

share this

A mishap administering the COVID-19 vaccine to students at South Lake Elementary School last week was the latest affront to the community’s relationship with the school district and county government, parents and advocates said on Tuesday.

At South Lake Elementary School, more than half of the students are English language learners. It has one of the largest percentages (90%) of students eligible for free or reduced-priced meals, an indicator the district uses to measure poverty.

Last week, the county’s Department of Health and Human Services sponsored a vaccination clinic for students at the school, aiming to target a community with people less likely to be able to travel to other clinics.

Community advocates organized in the days leading up to the clinic, working to teach families — largely families of color, more likely to be skeptical — about the importance and safety of the vaccine. When the day came, they were pleased with the turnout.

Then, on Monday, county health officials announced that 98 students who got a COVID-19 shot at the school would need to be revaccinated because their doses had been too diluted. Many parents found out through news reports, and were still waiting for a call or email from the health department on Tuesday afternoon.

In a press release on Monday night, the department wrote that the doses were “diluted more than recommended” and affected students are being asked to get the shot again as soon as possible.

The county has said human error was to blame.

“We apologize for the error, and we are offering another opportunity for the children to be revaccinated,” James Bridgers, the acting county health officer, said in the press release. “We are confident that this is an isolated situation and staff have already received additional training on reconstituting and administering pediatric doses.”

“I feel guilty because I advocated … to get them vaccinated,” South Lake parent Adama Moussa Harouna said. “In a community where there’s a lot of people who mistrust the vaccine, we did the advocacy … and this is what we get.”

Moussa Harouna said her two children, ages 5 and 10, were both vaccinated at the clinic. She said health department leaders need to better explain what went wrong and apologize directly to families.

“We partnered with all of these people for a community that’s been ignored for a long time,” she said. “We got their trust and … we want to build trust again.”

Health officials were expected to hold a meeting with community members on Tuesday night to discuss the mistake and answer questions.

Another clinic will be held at the school on Wednesday, so the affected students can receive an additional dose.

While South Lake parents are frustrated about the vaccination debacle, they say it’s the culmination of years of letdowns that’s most concerning.

For at least three years, the community has asked police for a crossing guard to help manage traffic around the school at dropoff and pickup times. In the same time frame, three students have been hit by cars trying to walk to or from the school, parent Adoree Betancourt said.

The South Lake community also spent years advocating for a new school. They highlighted persistent rodent infestations, air quality and HVAC malfunctions, and lack of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance.

Last year, MCPS leaders acknowledged the problems, calling them “insurmountable” with routine maintenance. The school board, and later the County Council, approved a $5.8 million budget appropriation to fund a rebuild of the school.

The project, scheduled now to be completed in 2023, includes tearing down the existing school, built in 1972, and replacing it with a new building.

Advocates were excited about the project’s approval, but disappointed it took years of pressure and watching other schools with what they perceived to have less urgent needs get addressed first.

To many, it represents a pattern of county agencies neglecting some of their highest-needs students.

Asked what it will take to rebuild trust, Betancourt said: “Treat us fairly.”

“They talk about equity,” she said, “but we don’t see any equity at South Lake.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com