With a surge in positive coronavirus cases among Maryland children, state lawmakers asked Health Secretary Dennis Schrader if his department would require vaccinations in the schools.
Not right now, he said Monday, Sept. 27 during a virtual briefing before a Senate vaccine oversight work group.
“We’re being very careful not to be intentionally overbearing and allowing the school systems to take the lead in their individual jurisdictions,” he said. “We’re being very differential to them. We’re giving them our guidance and our best advice, but we don’t want to be interventionist in terms of school policy.”
As of Monday, about 62 percent of teenagers ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated with 70 percent having received at least one dose. The Pfizer-BioNTech remains the only COVID-19 vaccine approved for that age group and there remains no available vaccine for children younger than 12.
The state highlights a list of public and private schools showing positive cases.
Local school districts such as Prince George’s County updates reported cases at various schools and other buildings on its website.
Vaccine policies fluctuate among the state’s 24 public school districts.
Prince George’s students 12 and older participating in sports must be vaccinated. Those who still didn’t receive a shot in the arm will undergo weekly testing starting the week of Oct. 18.
Weekly testing for unvaccinated student-athletes in neighboring Anne Arundel County won’t start until Nov. 22.
Schrader said nearly one million people statewide remain unvaccinated and noted, “We’ve been saying publicly, ‘If you’re not vaccinated, your chance of dying goes up dramatically.’”
Although the committee praised some of the health department’s efforts, singling out data showing that 83 percent of residents 18 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, it wasn’t pleased with some of Schrader’s explanations to increase vaccination efforts in the schools.
Sen. Jim Rosapepe (D-District 21), a Democrat who lives in College Park but also represents portions of Anne Arundel County, said it appears some officials with the health department and school systems are blaming each other about which group can require vaccinations.
“It’s the adults pointing fingers at each other while the kids are suffering and the parents are suffering,” he said.
He offered a few suggestions such as the state’s Health and Education departments lead in the effort “because you have the power to do it and I would encourage you to use that power.”
Sen. Clarence Lam, a physician who represents portions of Baltimore and Howard counties, agrees.
“It sounds like the Maryland Department of Health, under the authority that you have, you’re not looking to use that as a tool to increase the vaccination rates of teens in our schools. Is that correct?” he said.
“Not at the moment,” Schrader replied. “It’s an interesting question. Are you advocating that we would make the 12 to 17 [year-old teens COVID-19] Pfizer a part of the required vaccination regiment in schools?”
Lam said yes, adding that he’s been in contact with patients who contracted COVID from their children.
“I think that would be one way to increase the vaccination rates in our schools,” Lam said. “You have a tool you can use as the secretary to require vaccinations for students coming into our schools, but it sounds like you are not reaching for this tool, or not willing to do so.”
“You make a good point, senator,” Schrader said. “We’ll go back and take a look at your suggestion.”