Members of a Senate oversight group renewed pressure on Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration Monday for mandated COVID-19 vaccinations in public schools.
The push by members of the Senate Vaccination Oversight Work Group — all Democrats — comes as cases climb among school age children. Some compared the desired mandate to vaccination requirements for measles, polio and other diseases.
“Those younger ages groups, the 0-19 age group, now have the highest case rates,” said Sen. Clarence Lam, D-Howard and Baltimore counties and a physician. “This exceeds all other age groups in number of new cases.”
Lam, speaking to Health Secretary Dennis Schrader, said the department could require the Pfizer vaccine for students 12-18.
“You do have the tool to be able to require the vaccination of students going into schools,” said Lam.
Currently, about 62% are fully vaccinated and 70% have had at least one dose.
“I think that would be one way to raise the vaccination rates in our schools,” said Lam, speaking of a requirement. “I’ve seen patients where parents have gotten COVID from their kids.”
Schrader told Lam and others that he’d be willing to look at the issue but said he favored less “interventionist” methods.
“We’re being very careful not to be intentionally overbearing and allowing the school systems to take the lead in their individual jurisdictions,” said Schrader. “We’re being very deferential to them.”
Schrader said the department is concerned with lagging rates of vaccinations already required for Maryland students. He attributed those lower rates to the pandemic.
“We’re very concerned about getting routine vaccinations back up to speed,” he said. “While we’re having those conversations we’re also talking about (ages) 12-17 to see if we can work with them. We really need to rely on the schools to help with this. They’re autonomous, and we want to make sure we respect that autonomy.”
Sen. Ron Young, D-Frederick, agreed with Lam and said the state needs “to take more bold steps” in fighting the pandemic.
“When I was in school, they lined us up for polio and smallpox (inoculations),” said Young. “And we got them. There wasn’t any question. They lined us up and went down the line and we all got them.”
Schrader’s comments hark back to the dissent from some Republicans over a recent statewide mandate by the Maryland State Department of Education on mask use in schools.
And while children are less affected by the virus, the delta variant is proving highly transmissible among children. Cases among students are rising. In Anne Arundel County, the number of students facing quarantines grew to about 1,200 last week.
Sen. Jim Rosapepe, D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, called on Schrader and the health department to begin publicly ranking schools by vaccination rates. The system would be similar to that used by the state to shame some nursing home providers into increasing vaccination rates.
“Marylanders have information now about where their parents are in nursing homes, the ones that are safe and the ones that aren’t safe,” said Rosapepe. “The state Health Department can do exactly the same thing with public schools in the state so every parent would know how safe their child’s school is.”
Some senators called on Schrader and state leaders to impose penalties for not being vaccinated.
Schrader told lawmakers that roughly a million Maryland residents remain unvaccinated. Nearly half are on Medicaid.
“We have a good understanding of who the unvaccinated are, where they are, and will continue to do all we can to vaccinate them,” said Schrader.
Young told Schrader to consider limits on what the unvaccinated can do, such as attending concerts, going to restaurants or museums.
“I know we can’t mandate someone get a vaccination but we can make it very difficult for them to go out in public and do anything if they don’t have one,” Young said.
Montgomery County leaders said they are considering a vaccine passport style system that could be mandatory. Anne Arundel County leaders have discussed a system that businesses could use voluntarily to verify the vaccination status of guests and workers.
“We’ve been reluctant to force people to do these things,” said Schrader. “We’ve had a lot of success so far encouraging, cajoling, educating,” said Schrader.