Pictured are Moderna COVID-19 vaccine doses from the initial 100 delivered to Montgomery County officials on Dec. 23. Credit: Photo from Montgomery County

After the state on Monday ordered local jurisdictions to immediately align their COVID-19 vaccine phases with the state’s, county officials had mixed reactions and outlooks on the impact.

The order, from Dennis Schrader, acting secretary of the state Department of Health, was issued Monday afternoon with no warning or notice beforehand to county officials, Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, told the County Council on Tuesday.

The order also came with no explanation or reasoning behind the decision, he said.

Previously, jurisdictions could decide their own priority groups within vaccine phases. Now, under Monday’s order, all jurisdictions will follow the state’s guidelines.

Some Montgomery County officials said Tuesday that the alignment would prevent confusion with differences in priority groups, while others said the switch would mean sacrificing vaccine equity efforts in the county.

The county was working to align its vaccine phases with the state’s on Tuesday. The penalty for not following the state order — which was issued to health officers — is imprisonment of up to a year and/or a fine of up to $5,000.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, wrote in an email on Tuesday evening that the order was distributed through the proper channels of public notification.

“The order formalizes the state’s distribution plan to comply with the federal directive to broaden eligibility and make all adults eligible by May 1,” he wrote. Hogan has announced that all Maryland residents age 16 and older will be eligible for vaccination no later than April 27.

The state is currently vaccinating individuals in Phases 1A, 1B, and 1C. On Tuesday, the state moved into its Phase 2A vaccination phase.

The county was still vaccinating individuals in its Phase 1A and 1B, and residents age 65 and older.

“All persons included in the Current Phase and all prior phases of the State Vaccine Prioritization Policy shall be eligible to receive COVID-19 Vaccines,” the order stated. “Political subdivisions shall not make orders or rules to the contrary.”

County Executive Marc Elrich said during a media briefing on Tuesday afternoon that he was excited for the county to expand its eligibility to more groups, but more vaccine doses will be needed to move faster in administering them.

He did not think the change would affect the county’s plans for equitable distribution.

“I know the state is committed to an equitable distribution and we’re committed to an equitable distribution. Going into the phases with more supply of the vaccine is going to be a lot easier thing to do,” he said.

He added that being able to move faster through the phases will mean priority tiers won’t be “as important.”

“This doesn’t change anything. It’s not a different phase, it’s not a different tier. We’re just going to make sure we can get the vaccines out as broadly and deeply in our community as possible,” he said.

Council Member Hans Riemer said during a council briefing on Tuesday morning that switching to align with the state’s phases is a positive move.

“There’s a little bit of confusion out there about prioritizations. I think we had wanted to move more slowly in the initial phase to ensure that those most medically vulnerable would be able to be prioritized,” he said.

But some council members disagreed with him and were disappointed that the state order flipped plans to introduce a county order on Tuesday. The order would have expanded county vaccine eligibility to more age ranges in geographic areas with disproportionately high-risk mortality rates.

The county order would have included an expansion to residents 60 or older in those areas, then an expansion to residents 55 or older in those areas by April 13.

Council Member Will Jawando, one of those who initiated the county order for vaccine equity, said the state decision was “shameful.”

“The governor, by taking this action, has hampered our ability and taken a tool out of the tool box to target those most vulnerable,” he said. “I think it’s disgusting. I think it’s playing politics with people’s lives.”

Council Member Nancy Navarro said she hoped the state and governor were not playing politics with the decision.

“Time after time, week after week — here we are, basically struggling with the same exact challenge and I’m at odds,” Navarro said of the state decision with no notice. “I mean, there are, of course, particular theories out there.

“But I just — perhaps I’m just too hopeful. I just refuse to believe that this is a political issue. It doesn’t make sense because we’re talking about people’s lives. … I’m constantly blown away by the disconnect that continues to play out.”

Council Member Craig Rice criticized the state for not including local health officers in decisions. Rice said Hogan is not listening to the best health guidance — a dereliction of duty.

“It is something where I hope folks remember this — remember the fact that there are Black and brown people that are dying. There are Black and brown people that are getting affected by this disease more than anyone else,” he said. “You can hold a press conference, Gov. Hogan, and talk about equity. Where’s the damn plan? Because I haven’t seen it.”

Gayles said the state has taken certain actions for equitable distribution, but has not released a formal, comprehensive plan.

Ricci declined to comment on the council members’ criticism of the decision.

He wrote in an email that the Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force is working closely with local jurisdictions to ensure vaccines are available where they are needed most.

Ricci provided a list of upcoming task force clinics in Montgomery County:
● Kingdom Fellowship AME in Silver Spring on Friday
● Impact Silver Spring at Hughes United Methodist Church in Wheaton on Saturday
● Islamic Center of Maryland in Gaithersburg on Sunday
● Bauer Park Apartments in Rockville on March 31
● Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring on April 2
● Cross Community Lake Forest Mall in Gaithersburg on April 7

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