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Montgomery County officials urge state to expand booster eligibility

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich also is calling on the federal government to boost the number of vaccine doses. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Officials in Montgomery County called on state health officials to clear the way for expanded access to boosters and additional vaccine doses for children. 

The state and its most populous county are seeing sustained growth in COVID-19 cases prior to the Thanksgiving holiday.

“Certainly we’re not out there on our own,” said Earl Stoddard, assistant chief administrative officer for the county. “We wouldn’t go out there on our own doing something different from what the state has said, but come out and say, yes, the state should move to that policy as other states have.”

On Monday, New York joined California, Colorado and New Mexico in expanding access. New Jersey officials announced the same day that they were also close to widening access. 

“We have an issue of waning immunity in the population,” said Stoddard. “We had to prioritize, rightly so, the older population for boosters as we continue to do that. But if you’ve been to a booster clinic in Montgomery County you know there is no line at this point. There is no glut of people still waiting for the boosters. ”

Montgomery County also will reinstate its mask mandates later this week. Starting Saturday at 12:01 a.m., masks will be required in all indoor settings open to the public in Montgomery County. 

The announcement comes as the neighboring District of Columbia announced the lifting of its mask mandate. 

Under federal guidelines, all people 65 years and older are eligible for a booster six months after their second dose. Those who are 18 or older and have an underlying condition or have compromised immune systems or who work in a high risk job are also eligible. In Maryland, people seeking a booster need only self-attest that they fall into one of the CDC categories or are in routine close contact with people who are potentially unvaccinated.

State Health Secretary Dennis Schrader told a Senate work group earlier this week of an internal debate to break with current federal guidelines. The move, as other states have recently announced, would expand eligibility for booster doses to anyone 18 and older who received a Pfizer or Moderna shot at least six months ago. 

At least one county — Anne Arundel — said it is already providing those shots under an expanded definition of who is at risk. 

In Montgomery County, the official policy is that the jurisdiction follows guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. 

Those same officials acknowledge they are not turning away anyone seeking a booster. They are also not verifying the status of adults who claim they meet one of the risk categories to be eligible for the booster shots. 

“We are very much in a self-attestation mode around this,” said Raymod Crowel, director of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services. “We are not seeking a lot of information to verify the health status of those who say they are in high risk categories, so it is highly likely that there are some who are in more broadly defined high risk categories who are getting vaccinated.”

County health officials also called on the state and federal government to increase the supply of doses for children 5-11. 

About one-third of the total doses sent to Montgomery County go directly to the county health department for clinics. 

So far, the county has administered 19,700 doses to children. Despite the large number of vaccinations, roughly 51% of all doses sent to the county have yet to be used. Stoddard said those doses are in the hands of pharmacies, doctors and other providers and outside the control of the county.

County officials are holding back doses to ensure those children who received a first dose can get a second. The lack of availability and the uncertainty of week to week supply has resulted in the county limiting and in some cases canceling clinics to vaccinate children.

“We have more capacity to put doses out,” said Stoddard. We have more desire from people to receive them. We just don’t have the vaccine to put out first doses.”

County Executive Marc Elrich called on the federal government to ship more doses. He also called on state officials to claw back current doses or limit future shipments to providers who are not using them quickly enough. 

The county, like Maryland and many areas of the country, is reporting increased cases. The county is currently reporting high transmission of the virus based on new cases per 100,000 people. That rate has been above moderate level for seven days and will trigger a resumption of the county’s indoor mask mandate.