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As vaccination efforts expand, Montgomery ties reopening decisions to how many have gotten shots

A mobile vaccination unit was set up outside St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church in Forest Heights, Md., on Tuesday, offering shots by appointment and to walk-up clients. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Coronavirus infections in the region continued a two-week decline on Tuesday, as local officials sought to keep boosting inoculations among reluctant populations — including with a pop-up vaccination clinic that drew 90 people in Prince George’s County, Md.

Montgomery County became the first jurisdiction in the area to tie reopening decisions to vaccination rates, with the county council voting to relax caps on the size of indoor gatherings and the capacity of retail establishments because 50 percent of all residents have received at least one vaccine dose.

Officials said they would ease those restrictions — some of the toughest still in place in the region — effective 5 p.m. Tuesday. The county’s new rules allow gatherings of 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors, and 50 percent capacity inside retail businesses.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) lifted indoor and outdoor capacity limits on most businesses more than a month ago, but Montgomery and Prince George’s counties were among the jurisdictions that kept stricter rules in place.

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The seven-day average of new cases in D.C., Virginia and Maryland has been declining daily since April 12. Hospitalizations have also plateaued across the region.

The District reported 93 new cases and one death, Maryland recorded 677 new cases and 18 deaths, and Virginia reported 1,105 new cases and 18 deaths.

The continued decline comes as state and local officials seek new avenues to get shots to residents.

Arlington County’s public health department, for example, began scheduling shots for teenagers as young as 16, who became eligible earlier this month but were waiting in line behind people ages 18 and older.

Maryland announced drive-through shots will be immediately available without an appointment at three mass vaccination clinics: the Six Flags site in Prince George’s County, the Regency Stadium site in Charles County and the Ripken Stadium site in Harford County.

Walk-up shots are now available at nine of Maryland’s vaccination sites.

Montgomery County officials said the county’s next two reopening phases will be triggered when 60 percent of the population has received at least one shot, and when 50 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated. Health officer Travis Gayles said he expects those two targets could be met within three and six weeks, respectively.

The county still has more than 30,000 individuals on its preregistration list waiting for invitations to schedule vaccine appointments. As officials work their way through that list, they will also start to plan for other “access points” such as walk-up vaccine clinics, said Earl Stoddard, the head of emergency management.

“This is a process, it’s not a light switch,” County Council President Tom Hucker (D-District 5) said about the new reopening framework. “The sooner we all get vaccinated, the sooner we’ll all get back to normal.”

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In Prince George’s County, near a small church in Forest Heights, some who came to be vaccinated had heard about the clinic from friends. Others stumbled upon it while walking by. A few had struggled for weeks to get an appointment, while others had been on the fence about whether to get the shot at all.

Jose Funes, a manager at the McDonald’s on the other side of Indian Head Highway from St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church, walked over at midday. He hoped his decision to get the shot would help convince his 80 employees — the vast majority of whom aren’t vaccinated — to follow suit.

“They say, ‘Go boss, and let me know how you feel,’ ” said Funes after receiving his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the church parking lot. “So far, I feel good.”

Such clinics target Zip codes with characteristics that make vaccinations crucial and hard to execute: high poverty and coronavirus infection rates, coupled with low access to transportation. Prince George’s officials seek out community partners, often churches or community centers, to host the pop-up efforts.

“We know it’s about access,” said Euniesha Davis, director of community relations for Prince George’s County. She attends many of the pop-ups in person and is planning a 24-hour vaccine-a-thon in mid-May.

Thomas Stanley, 41, who works next door to St. Mark at Henry’s Soul Cafe, said he had been wanting to get vaccinated for a while but had missed two previous appointments because of transportation issues. So he was thrilled when he saw the tents, mobile vans and county employees gathered outside St. Mark.

“Fate lined up,” Stanley said. “I was a little nervous, but I’m also scared of covid.”

People started showing up in the parking lot at 8:30 a.m. — 90 minutes before the mobile clinic was set to open, said St. Mark Pastor Jonathan Davis. He said residents in Forest Heights, 90 percent of whom are Black and Latino, often feel overlooked in their part of the county, about three miles from the glitzy National Harbor.

“We have to raise our hands and say, ‘Hey, there are people here,’ ” Davis said. “It makes it a lot better when you bring the services to the community.”

Men lag women in coronavirus vaccinations, especially in Black communities

Davis shares the church space with Carlos Diaz, a Pentecostal pastor who estimated that only 30 percent of his mostly Spanish-speaking congregation has gotten vaccinated so far.

“We didn’t have the opportunity,” said Diaz, who got his first shot at the clinic on Tuesday and was encouraging others to do the same. Barriers include lack of access to doctors, insurance and transportation, he said, in addition to fear and distrust about the vaccine.

Diaz said he’s still working on getting his son to take it. “That is a decision he has to make,” he said.

At Bowie State University on Monday, local health officials and members of the Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force tried to convince residents still on the fence about getting the shot — particularly men.

Early data shows substantial gender divides in vaccination rates, with men far less likely than women to be vaccinated. The gaps are especially large in Black communities in the Washington region, according to an analysis of the data by The Post.

“Men need to step up,” said Prince George’s Health Officer Ernest L. Carter. “You can’t allow our community to go down because we are afraid to get a vaccine that is so safe.”

Prince George’s assistant fire chief David Wilson said for months he declined the vaccine, partly because of concerns related to the historic mistreatment of African Americans by the medical establishment. He said recent conversations with friends convinced him the science behind the vaccine is sound and designed to save lives. He said a friend from church reminded him of the bad things he had put in his body without issues — including drugs and alcohol — a reminder that proved to be the final push he needed.

“I was vaccinated today, and I’m not a zombie,” Wilson said with a laugh.

Deneen Richmond, the president of Doctors Community Hospital, said one of her two sons has been vaccinated, and she took the eldest out to dinner on Saturday to work on convincing him. Once a hard no, he is now leaning yes, she said.

“Be the leaders,” she said, urging those listening to talk with friends and relatives who are still unsure. “Talk to them about why and convince them.”

Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.

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