Mandates, whistleblowers, and culture change: Maryland grapples over Omicron response

Vaccine mandates, issues with vendors, and more put Maryland Secretary of Health Dennis R. Schrader under scrutiny as he updated Senate President Bill Ferguson (D – Baltimore City) and other members of the Senate Vaccine Oversight Workgroup on the state’s response to the Omicron variant late last week. 

 

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COVID-19 hospitalizations have reached an all-time high, surpassing 3,400 as of Monday. Last week, Gov. Larry Hogan issued a 30-day state of emergency and mobilized state resources to aid “virtually full” hospitals, according to the Maryland Hospital Association. 

While Schrader ensured the Department of Health (DOH) is working closely with hospitals to handle the influx of COVID patients, senators at the meeting called for strategies to increase the state’s vaccination rate, particularly among children. 

“I think we need a real aggressive strategy,” Sen. James Rosapepe (D – Prince George’s) said. “The most straightforward one is for the school systems who have the authority according to the Attorney General to put in their own vaccine mandates for COVID … if the health department would do it, I’d love you to do it, but if you’re not going to do it, I hope the local school systems do.”

Schrader said the department has planned an intensive COVID testing regiment within schools, including a $160 million allocation from federal funds, but did not disclose any plans for statewide mask or vaccine mandates.

“We are attempting to create a culture of education,” Schrader said. “We want to persuade them [to mask up and get vaccinated], not force them … by persuading people and being patient, then I think we will change the culture over time.”

Senator Clarence Lam, M.D. (D – Baltimore) argued hospitals are currently too strained to wait for “a change in culture,” and recommended mandates be put in place. He also expressed concern over how the department handled issues with TrueCare24, a vendor that distributed potentially expired vaccines to hundreds of patients. 

According to Schrader’s recount of the events, the department first became aware of issues with the vendor in early Sept. 2021. Although the department launched an investigation and contacted both the vaccine manufacturer and CDC for guidance, it did not begin notifying affected patients until three months later, on Dec. 30. 

The notifications followed a Dec. 29 Baltimore Sun article on a complaint a DOH employee filed, alleging the department retaliated against her for attempting to address the vendor issue. 

Schrader clarified he was “not happy” about the delays and told senators that all affected patients would be contacted by the end of the week, and the incident investigation would be completed by the end of the month. 

Senator Mary Washington (D – Baltimore City) was also concerned by the disproportionate amount of marginalized communities impacted by the potential vaccine spoilage. 

“I’m very concerned when we talk about trust,” she said, “… and having trust in state government, trust in the administration, to handle these problems through the pandemic. I’m concerned about the [potentially] spoiled vaccines and that they were administered primarily to exactly the communities who are in most need.”

When asked on how community members can learn more about vaccine availability, Schrader recommended visiting the MDH website or calling local health departments. 

However, a centralized information hub might not be enough to reach Maryland’s underserved communities, advocates point out. Stephen Thomas, Ph.D, director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity (M-CHE), co-published a report in Sept. 2021 on the impact of strengthening local public health campaigns in Maryland. 

In Prince George’s County, where over 64% of residents are Black or African-American, Stephen found that community-led COVID-19 campaigns set up in local barbershops and beauty salons helped ensure residents received accurate information about the vaccine. 

“You can’t just do a nationwide blanket message or communication,” Thomas said. “… you need community-led, organized [efforts] in the community to advocate measures needed to close the health disparity gap.”