Maryland lawmakers seek greater oversight of state's COVID-19 vaccination program
Citing "unacceptable" levels of confusion and slow vaccination rates, Senate President Bill Ferguson announced Tuesday that lawmakers will convene a new work group to examine Maryland's strategy for inoculating citizens against COVID-19.
Ferguson said the Department of Health's vaccination effort has failed to ensure that the coveted vaccines are being administered fairly and efficiently.
The department had months to develop a plan, Ferguson said, "and yet here we are with unacceptable levels of confusion about vaccine access, administration and distribution."
Ferguson said that until the vaccination program improves, he does not "think it would be fair" to confirm Gov. Larry Hogan's choice for state health secretary, Acting Secretary Dennis Schrader.
The Senate must vote to confirm Schrader's nomination if he is to fill the post permanently. Hogan previously appointed Schrader to the position in 2017, but withdrew the nomination after it was stymied in the Senate.
Ferguson on Tuesday signaled that the Senate may not give Hogan the speedy confirmation he said he expected last week.
"What we need to see is progress" on vaccinating Marylanders in order to confirm Schrader, Ferguson said.
Michael Ricci, Hogan's director of communications, said the state can only vaccinate based on how many doses it receives from the federal government.
"Right now, the federal government is only giving us 10,000 doses per day for over 1.5 million people who are currently eligible," Ricci said in an email. "This is going to take some time, and as the governor has repeatedly cautioned, you're going to see stories about not enough appointments, long lines, waiting lists, and demand exceeding supply."
Ricci also said Ferguson should do more to encourage public confidence in the vaccine rather than focusing on "Annapolis politics."
The new work group will meet weekly to receive metrics from the state Department of Health on the vaccination campaign, Ferguson said Tuesday.
The work group will include Ferguson and senators James Rosapepe (D-Prince George's and Anne Arundel), Clarence Lam (D-Howard and Baltimore counties), Mary Washington (D-Baltimore), Ronald Young, (D-Frederick) and Adelaide Eckardt (R-Eastern Shore).
Ferguson said the state has failed to take responsibility for administering vaccines, instead placing blame on hospitals, local jurisdictions and other providers for not injecting people quickly enough.
As of Tuesday, Maryland had distributed about 551,000 doses of the vaccine, according to state data. Of those, 265,000 have been administered, leaving about 286,000 doses un-administered.
Ferguson also said that the state's vaccination rate slowed significantly over the weekend, shortly after state officials said vaccines were being administered more quickly than new doses were arriving.
"At the end of the day, we need to know what's kept all the vaccines from being used this week and every week," Ferguson said.
Hogan last week announced new timelines for the state's vaccination plan. On Monday, Maryland moved to phase 1B, which includes people older than 75, educational staff and day care workers and other high-risk populations.
Phase 1C will begin in a week, and will include all adults between the age of 65 and 74 and certain essential workers.
But the state doesn't yet have enough doses to vaccinate all those groups, and vaccine access is not the same in all parts of the state. Providers have also seen high levels of vaccine hesitancy, including among health care workers.
Ferguson said lawmakers are being inundated with questions from constituents about how to sign up for vaccines and whether they are eligible.
"This lack of consistency and clarity is an enormous problem for Marylanders and for us," he said.
The workgroup will examine whether Marylanders are being vaccinated efficiently, whether the supply chain is working, whether the demand for vaccines exceeds the supply, and whether there will be equitable access to the vaccine in minority communities.
State data already shows that Black and Hispanic Marylanders, who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, have received proportionately fewer vaccines so far than white Marylanders.
Madeleine O'Neill covers the Maryland State House and state issues for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @maddioneill.