By Greg Ellison
(Feb. 18, 2021) County Health Department Public Affairs Officer Travis Brown gave Ocean Pines residents a progress report last Thursday on the distribution of the first phase of coronavirus vaccines.
Brown’s presentation during an Ocean Pines Association virtual town hall overseen by Communications Committee Chairwoman Jenny Cropper Rines, included a question-and-answer session.
Brown said because of the limited number of vaccine doses being sent to Worcester, the county has changed from online registration on MarylandVax.org to a phone-in system for scheduling vaccinations.
“As of last week, we have moved to a single central waiting list that includes all clinics operated by the Worcester County Health Department,” he said. “Due to limited supply of vaccine, we do not expect to post … to MarylandVax.org for the next several weeks.”
Brown said the health department waiting list for coronavirus vaccine is about 5,000 deep with anyone covered under Phase 1A-C eligible.
“Due to the state directive, we are prioritizing those that are 65 plus,” he said.
Additionally, Maryland has directed regional health departments to allocate one third of vaccine rations for teachers and associated personnel.
The state health department reported that Phase 1C, which began in late January, qualifies about 2 million state residents for vaccinations, including anyone 65 or older.
Also covered under Phase 1C are Marylanders employed in agriculture production, critical manufacturing, mass transit, grocery retailers, veterinary care, clergy and support staff. Also covered are U.S. Postal Service employees or public safety and health care providers not previously included in Phases 1A or 1B.
For those qualified vaccine appointments can be scheduled by calling 667-253-2140 Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Brown said the phone line was initially overrun with requests after being launched the week before.
“One of the first days, we averaged [about] 3,600 calls,” he said.
With overall staffing of about 250, the health department was able to dedicate roughly 75 people to cover phone lines, which resulted in lengthy hold times early on.
“We have every available staff that isn’t already helping with clinics … helping with the call center,” he said. “Luckily, volume has gone down.”
Brown said the health department would return to scheduling appointments online though Marylandvac.org whenever vaccine rations increase.
“We are hoping and planning to go back to posting clinics there as soon as the vaccine supply allows it,” he said. “We’re averaging about 300 doses of Moderna per week.”
Brown said the department’s waiting list is exclusive to its clinics, with area hospitals, drug stores or grocers operating independently.
“Each entity has its own different waiting list and procedures,” he said. “We are all operating under the same phase system rules.”
Del. Wayne Hartman (R-38C) said to this point 16.2 percent of county residents have received a first dose, while about 4 percent have completed a second final dose of vaccine.
“Worcester County is doing an amazing job getting the vaccine out,” he said. “We are second to Kent County but … our population is almost three times [greater].”
During a weekly covid-19 podcast on worcesterhealth.org from Feb. 12, Brown reported the county has thus far distributed 3,200 first vaccine doses.
“At this point not a single drop has spoiled or not been used effectively,” he said.
Looking ahead, timeframes remain hazy for implementing Phases 2 and 3 for covid-19 vaccines in Maryland.
“We don’t have a timeline yet for when we expect to get to Phase 2,” he said.
Brown said comments from Gov. Larry Hogan indicate the state probably would shift to further phases in unison.
“We have a saying, ‘different day, different way’ where it’s updated constantly,” he said. “We’re just trying to make sure we get the majority of Phase 1 vaccinated before we move there.”
Phase 2 includes adults ages 16 and above at higher risk of severe covid-19 illness because of chronic or long-term health conditions. Phase 2 also includes essential workers not included in Phase 1. Phase 3 covers the general population.
Brown said residents are cautioned to be patient while the vaccine distribution continues ramping up and to continue following prevention recommendations.
Brown said anyone previously diagnosed with covid-19 should get vaccinated between 60 to 90 days after testing asymptomatic.
“We’re not sure how much resistance just being positive at one time will give you,” he said. “If you have had covid, the recommendation … is still seek vaccination.”
The supply chain should be bolstered with the anticipated arrival of the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine, which the Food and Drug Administration is considering for emergency use authorization.
“Johnson & Johnson is a single one so effectively the supply is doubled,” he said. “Ideally, that will help with our supply problem because we do not at this time have enough vaccine to meet the demand that we are seeing.”
Although Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is reportedly 72 percent effective against covid-19, compared to 94.1 and 95 percent respectively for Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, the last two options both involve receiving a priming dose followed by a booster shot 28 days later for Moderna and 21 days later for Pfizer.
Brown said a letter was sent last week asking state officials to raise vaccine rations because of the seasonal spikes in population. With a year-round population of 50,000, the county’s total population in the summer swells to roughly a quarter-million people, Brown said.
“The Worcester County Commissioners also have supported reaching out to Maryland for additional supplies of vaccine,” he said.
Brown said Maryland Health officials have directed counties to refrain from enacting residency restrictions since vaccines are obtained through a federal program.
“Our belief is we are getting a lot more than our general population,” he said.
Brown said county officials contend the state basing vaccine allocations on the 50,000-plus year-round population is unreasonable.
“Some counties in Maryland have limited it to fulltime residents or those who work within the county,” he said.
For additional covid-19 information call the health department at 410-632-1100 and select option 8 or visit worcesterhealth.org for regular updates on positivity rates and vaccine allocations.