Maryland health officials say they are wary of pressuring local school systems to require COVID-19 vaccinations for students returning in the fall.
In general, key measurements of the pandemic are all showing continuing positive trends just days before the state of emergency and statewide mask requirements are set to end on July 1. Included in those measurements are the numbers of children 12-17 years old — the ages of middle and high school students — who are getting vaccinated.
At least one lawmaker told Health Secretary Dennis Schrader that the state should consider ramping up efforts to push for mandatory vaccinations.
“We require vaccinations for everything else for kids to come back to school,” said Sen. James Rosapepe, D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s.
In Maryland, state universities are requiring vaccinations in order for students to return to on-campus learning. Some businesses, including hospitals around the state, are also requiring employees to be vaccinated.
“I’m not suggesting you mandate it, but I am suggesting that you take leadership,” said Rosapepe. “They look to you for health policy leadership. I’d hope that the health department would be encouraging it.”
Schrader, however, expressed concern about the coming flu season, especially for children, as well as a rise in variants, including the infectious Delta variant.
“Step No. 1 is, as you know, the local school boards generally make these decisions, and we’ve been reluctant to get involved where the local decisions should be made,” said Schrader. “We have been facilitating, but we have not been mandating.”
Schrader said the state continues to work with school systems on increasing testing in elementary schools as well as providing protective equipment. None of the vaccines have yet been approved for children under 12, whom he said will remain “potential spreaders” until a vaccine is approved.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” said Schrader. “The expectation is that we’re going to open all the schools.”
COVID-19 is not the only concern for the coming school year, he said.
“We’re looking at flu surge, particularly in the pediatric population, and that’s high on my list of concerns,” said Schrader. “I think we’re really focused on trying to understand the pediatric flu impact potentially.”
Masking, social distancing and remote learning and work all kept the flu season at abnormally low levels this past year.
The state continues to show improvement as the July 4 holiday approaches. Daily cases are below 100 per day with the overall per-capita rate remaining below 1 per 100,000 people. The state positivity rate is well below 1%. Deaths and hospitalizations continue downward trends.
The health secretary said the picture is very different for those who remain unvaccinated, either because of a lack of access to clinics, hesitancy or the belief that the vaccines are unsafe.
Currently, 97% of new cases in the state involve people who are not vaccinated. Those same patients comprise 89% of the hospitalizations and deaths, according to Schrader, who called it “a serious risk.”
The health secretary said the state is continuing to push vaccinations in areas where rates are low.
“We’re nowhere near declaring victory,” said Schrader. “We need to continue vaccinating people. I think the messaging continues to be, ‘If you are unvaccinated, you are at risk,’ and we just want to keep driving that.”
As the state continues to reopen and recover, state officials are beginning to grapple with how to help businesses that have imposed vaccination mandates for employees determine who has satisfied those requirements.
“We want to get more businesses or employers as appropriate to require vaccination of employees,” said Sen. Clarence Lam, D-Howard and Baltimore counties and a physician.
Lam said there is no agreement for many employers with occupational health clinics to access state data that shows who has been vaccinated; instead, businesses are relying on information provided by employees.
Schrader said the state has been working on the issue for at least a month.
“You’re right on the money,” Schrader told Lam.