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Frustration grows as Washington region struggles to meet growing demand for coronavirus vaccine

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and his wife, Yumi, receive the Moderna coronavirus vaccine Jan. 18, 2021, in Annapolis.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and his wife, Yumi, receive the Moderna coronavirus vaccine Jan. 18, 2021, in Annapolis. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Growing demand for the coronavirus vaccine amid complaints over distribution is sparking friction among local leaders and forcing some jurisdictions in the Washington region to pause appointments.

Maryland’s Senate president said the health secretary nominee of Gov. Larry Hogan (R) will not receive a confirmation hearing until the state shows more progress on the rollout of the vaccine. Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said state lawmakers are fielding calls from constituents about when and where they can be vaccinated, causing “unacceptable levels of confusion.”

He said he did not think “it would be fair” to move forward with the confirmation of Dennis Schrader, the state’s acting health secretary, before vaccine distribution has been improved.

“Maryland is ineffectively administering vaccines in an unaccountable manner,” Ferguson said during a virtual news conference.

The Hogan administration said last week that the state is vaccinating about 12,000 people a day. But that rate dipped to 7,120 on Saturday and 1,571 on Sunday, Ferguson said.

Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said the state is doing the best it can with the vaccine supply available.

“The governor has repeatedly cautioned, you’re going to see stories about not enough appointments, long lines, waiting lists and demand exceeding supply,” he said.

According to per capita data analyzed by The Washington Post, Maryland as of Tuesday evening has vaccinated about 4 percent of its population, ranking 17th among all states and D.C. Virginia ranks lower, with just 3.4 percent of its population vaccinated, while the District is in third place with 5.8 percent of its population vaccinated. Those rankings are for the first of the two-shot regimen.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Tuesday that the city’s public school system and charter school staffers working in-person by early February can begin to receive vaccines Jan. 25.

D.C. Public Schools is expected to reopen buildings Feb. 1, although Bowser has said that staffers do not need to be vaccinated to return. Day-care workers will not be included in the early vaccination round. City officials said they expect to be able to accommodate all eligible school staff within 10 days or so of Jan. 25.

Health officials across the Washington region are facing questions over scarce vaccine supplies. Local governments in Northern Virginia reported Tuesday that they have received only a fraction of the doses they need for those in eligible groups. In Prince William County, officials said the health department has stopped scheduling new vaccine appointments until Feb. 15 because of the shortfall.

In Maryland, local officials are scrambling to address confusion over vaccine eligibility and administration, with some residents of Montgomery County and elsewhere flocking to Prince George’s County for vaccine appointments. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s acting deputy health secretary, said Sunday that no state policy requires people to be vaccinated in their home counties.

Apart from delays in overall rollout, Ferguson said, state lawmakers also are concerned about the equitable distribution of vaccines.

Of the roughly 265,000 Marylanders who had been vaccinated as of Tuesday, Black residents accounted for 25 percent while making up 30 percent of the population. White residents accounted for 55 percent of those vaccinated, while making up 58 percent of the population.

Coronavirus cases and metrics in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

This disparity isn’t large, but it is noteworthy, Ferguson said, given the virus’s disproportionate effect on the Black community. Nearly 40 percent of the state’s fatalities have been Black residents.

Hogan said residents who fall in priority Phase 1b could begin receiving vaccines Monday, but some counties have not received enough doses to move ahead.

Montgomery County is still vaccinating health-care workers and first responders. Baltimore County Health Officer Gregory Wm. Branch said that “from a practical perspective . . . we do not have enough vaccines” to match the state’s plan.

Frederick County announced that only those in Phase 1a and those older than 75 are currently eligible. Others included in 1b, such as teachers and child-care providers, or those in lower-priority groups, “will be turned away at the clinic.”

“Our biggest concern about the governor’s announcement is that it’s given people the impression that there’s something available when there’s not,” Montgomery’s head of emergency management, Earl Stoddard, told county lawmakers Tuesday.

Over the weekend, residents in Baltimore and Montgomery counties and elsewhere in the state said they were able to obtain vaccine appointments in Prince George’s County, but not in their own jurisdiction.

Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) said she is aware of “many people from outside our county who have made a large number of appointments” to get vaccinated. Health Officer Ernest L. Carter estimated that 30 to 50 percent of the people who have made vaccination appointments in the county are not residents.

The county plans to administer 1,000 doses of the vaccine daily at the Wayne Curry Sports and Learning Complex beginning Thursday. Appointments have been filled through Feb. 9, but after that, there will be a “reset” to ensure that doses go to those who need them most, Alsobrooks said. Everyone who has made an appointment for a first dose before then will get the vaccine, and appointments for second doses will be honored.

But those who scheduled appointments for first doses after that date will have to fill out preregistration forms that health officials say will give them more control over who gets the vaccine.

Montgomery Health Officer Travis Gayles said the county hasn’t been able to expand eligibility for vaccine appointments because it has already administered 95 percent of its vaccine doses. As of Tuesday, 3 percent of residents in the county of 1 million people had received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared with 1.4 percent in Prince George’s.

“We schedule vaccination appointments when we have vaccines in hand,” said health department spokeswoman Mary Anderson. The county does not want to schedule appointments months into the future, Gayles said, adding that he worries that a “first-come, first-served” system would disadvantage low-income or marginalized residents who might be less able to navigate online registration.

Montgomery received 11,600 vaccines from the state this week, Anderson said, of which 4,300 will be administered to those who already received their first shot and 7,300 will be for first vaccinations. The county still has 20,000 people left in priority group 1a to vaccinate.

“If we’re going to vaccinate 75-year-olds this week, what we’re effectively saying is we’re taking it away from health-care workers and giving it to those 75 and older,” Stoddard said. “That’s the choice we’d have to make.”

Montgomery County Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) said he worries about the “regional equity” implications of residents from wealthier Montgomery snapping up vaccine appointments in Prince George’s, which is majority-Black. He urged Gayles and Stoddard to set up a clinic for those aged 75 and older as soon as possible, and in the meantime, to inform county residents when they can expect to receive the vaccine to dissuade them from scrambling for slots elsewhere.

Council member Andrew Friedson (D-District 1) agreed, adding, “The uncertainty is what is killing [residents] mentally.”

Montgomery has set up a preregistration form for those in priority group 1b so they can register for appointments once doses are available, Stoddard said. To date, more than 52,000 people have signed up — most of them 75 or older. The county is also helping hospitals set up vaccination sites this week to distribute doses they have yet to administer, Stoddard said.

In Prince George’s, vaccine hesitancy remains a challenge, officials said. As of Tuesday, only about 52 percent of the 25,000 people included in the county’s priority 1a group had been vaccinated.

Alsobrooks said another barrier to vaccination is lack of access to the Internet, especially among the county’s seniors. She urged residents who know seniors to help them sign up for appointments and said the county is setting up a vaccine help hotline to guide residents through the process.

In Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest jurisdiction, about 100,000 people have registered for vaccines through the local health department, officials said. That number doubled after the county on Monday expanded its eligibility requirements to people 65 and older and people with high-risk conditions, county spokesman Jeremy Lasich said.

“It will take anywhere from weeks to months for people on that list to get their appointments,” Lasich added, urging residents to be patient.

In nearby Prince William County, officials said they received just one-fifth of the vaccine doses they requested from the state this week.

With just a trickle of vaccines coming in and 25,000 residents on the list to receive their first shots, the Prince William Health District — which includes nearby Manassas and Manassas Park — stopped making new appointments over the weekend through Feb. 15, officials said.

“It’s going to take months for everyone in our current priority groups to get a dose at the current [rate of] allocation,” Brian Misner, the county’s emergency management coordinator, told the Prince William supervisors Tuesday.

This story was updated to reflect new data on vaccine administration released Tuesday evening.

Jenna Portnoy, Antonio Olivo, Lola Fadulu and Perry Stein contributed to this report.

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Coronavirus news in D.C., Virginia and Maryland

The latest: More than two years into the pandemic, covid cases in the D.C. region are rising again, , while liberal Montgomery County asks who deserves credit for its robust covid response. Meanwhile, Black funeral directors still face a daunting amount of deaths from covid and the omicron wave has had an unequal toll in the DMV.

At-home tests: Here’s how to use at-home covid tests, where to find them and how they differ from PCR tests.

Mapping the spread: Tens of thousands have died in the local region and nationwide cases number in the hundreds of thousands.

Omicron: Remaining covid restrictions in the D.C.-area, plus a breakdown of variant symptoms and mask recommendations.

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