ANNAPOLIS — The vast majority of lawmakers received the coronavirus vaccine this week as members of the House of Delegates prepare to return to full floor sessions in early February.
Lawmakers, eligible under state and CDC guidelines, received COVID-19 vaccinations from the state Health Department this week in what was a relatively quiet rollout. The efforts, however drew some criticism as the state’s overall vaccination program has been spotlighted for being slow and inconsistent.
“I think it is important that the people of Maryland, the 6 million people that rely on the legislature and government to provide during these very difficult times, that their representatives are able to exercise their democratic voice,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson. “That was how the process came together. I think it was the right decision, but I certainly understand because I struggled with it personally myself.”
Both Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones received their first of two doses on Tuesday. Ferguson at one point earlier this year expressed an interest in being vaccinated publicly to promote confidence in the drug.
On Friday, during a meeting with reporters, Ferguson said, “I want to talk about it because I think it’s appropriate, because I want people to trust the process and trust the vaccine and do what it takes to get the vaccine when it is available. I think I would have felt hypocritical saying ‘get the vaccine’ and then when we were eligible said ‘we didn’t get it.’ I’m very confident in the decision, even though I struggled with it.”
Similarly, Jones, who is the first woman and first Black presiding officer in the history of the state, said in an interview in early January that she was encouraging other Black and minority legislators to be vaccinated, saying they should be role models for their communities, where healthy disparities are the greatest but many are distrustful of the medical system and some government involvement.
In that interview, Jones acknowledged that she believed it was important for to get the vaccination herself to be a role model for her Baltimore County district as well as members of the House.
On Friday, Gov. Larry Hogan announced the start of a public campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated, especially those who live in communities of color.
Part of that effort includes the vaccination of community leaders, including prominent former lawmakers such as former Sens. Nathaniel McFadden and Larry Young, who was expelled from the Senate but hosts a radio program in Baltimore.
“Community leaders in eligible populations getting their vaccinations publicly is an important part of any vaccine confidence campaign,” said Mike Ricci, a Hogan spokesman. “When people see someone like them get vaccinated, it helps tackle vaccine hesitancy. For example, to have Larry Young be able to carry that message to his listeners, or Bishop Nunez carry it to his parishioners, or Senator McFadden carry it to his community, is critical for us. ”
CDC guidelines call for vaccinations for continuity of government. In Maryland, that definition includes the 141 members of the House of Delegates, 47 senators and some key staff.
Some lawmakers, like those from Prince George’s County, were offered vaccinations through their county health departments.
It was not immediately clear how many senators were vaccinated.
A spokeswoman for Jones said less than 10 members of the House declined vaccinations.
In both chambers, presiding officers said they prioritized older lawmakers and those with health conditions that make them more susceptible to the more severe effects of COVID-19.
Gov. Larry Hogan along with Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, their spouses and acting Deputy Health Secretary Jinlene Chan were vaccinated during a media event earlier this month.
Lawmakers became eligible when Hogan opened up phase 1B of the state vaccination plan two weeks ago. At the time, both Ferguson and Jones both expressed a desire to “not jump the line” and waited until this week when phase 1C opened up and the health department set up a clinic for legislators in the Miller Senate Office Building.
Ferguson and others have raised concerns about state vaccination efforts even as Hogan touts Maryland’s performance as “doing better than most states.” The Senate established a vaccination oversight group which meets for the second time on Monday. The Senate president has tied the confirmation of acting Health Secretary Dennis Schrader directly to the success of the state’s vaccine distribution efforts.
Speaking Friday, Ferguson said there were concerns about how doses are allocated to counties and exactly how much is on hand and where it is.
“There is a lack of clarity about the allocation of vaccines, point blank,” said Ferguson.
News of the legislators’ vaccination program drew criticism on social media from AARP Maryland, which criticized “bigwigs” in Annapolis for being able to access vaccinations while Maryland senior citizens struggled to find doses and navigate the scheduling process, in a now-deleted message on Twitter.
Nancy Carr, a spokeswoman for the organization, blamed the social media post on an intern and said it was erroneously posted.
“It did not strike the right tone,” said Carr, who added that the organization “wants to see older people prioritized while the vaccine is in short supply and the process remains complicated. The process has been extremely frustrating.”
Saqib Ali, a Montgomery County Democrat who served in the House and is running for a seat on 2022, criticized the lawmakers on Twitter before later deleting his post.
“Wait, what? Politicians are getting to jump in line ahead of everyone else? This is outrageous,” Ali posted in the now-deleted post.