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Maryland employers should require workers to get COVID vaccine, state health secretary says

In order to improve coronavirus vaccination rates, Maryland’s top health official said Tuesday that he’s hoping employers will require workers to get the shot.

Health Secretary Dennis Schrader said the state isn’t considering any widespread vaccination mandates, instead “nudging” companies to institute their own requirements.

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“What we really need are employers to take charge. They have the ability to do that. It is disappointing that more haven’t done that and are basically saying, ‘We prefer government control,’” Schrader told state senators during a video briefing Tuesday afternoon.

The University System of Maryland, several hospital systems and insurance company CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield have announced that workers must be vaccinated. The state government is requiring its workers in state prisons, hospitals, juvenile facilities and veterans’ homes to either get vaccinated or wear masks and submit to regular tests.

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More companies could — and should — follow suit, Schrader said.

“We think there’s going to be a burst here,” he said.

Through Tuesday, about 60% of the state’s total population was fully vaccinated, and 66% have gotten at least one shot, Schrader said. That puts Maryland sixth in the nation for the rate of vaccinating its residents.

Children aged 12 to 17 are still catching up, with about half of that group fully vaccinated and 62% having received their first dose. About 170,000 children in that age group still need to be vaccinated.

The state peaked at administering 65,000 shots a day in April, and is down to giving about 10,000 shots a day.

“It’s hard to see how it changes without some sort of mandate in place, or some basic requirement in some way,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat.

Schrader said it will be “very helpful” to vaccination efforts when the federal government gives full, permanent approval to the coronavirus vaccines, an upgrade from the current emergency use authorization.

Schrader said the state is pushing nursing homes to get their staffs fully vaccinated. For months, the state has posted a dashboard showing vaccination rates at nursing homes and recently started publicizing the best and worst facilities for vaccinations. A few nursing homes have 100% of their staff and residents vaccinated, while one Baltimore nursing home has only 11% of its staff vaccinated.

“We are using a carrot and a stick. We want people to do the right thing,” he said.

Sen. Addie Eckardt, a former nurse and Eastern Shore Republican, said she’s worried that people won’t get vaccinated if they know their doctors and nurses aren’t all vaccinated.

“Please, please tell the health care providers it sets a terrible example,” Eckardt urged the health secretary.

She added: “For staff to be unvaccinated, to me, it really says that you don’t value the profession, yourself or anybody else.”

Sen. Clarence Lam, who also is a physician, noted that other parts of the country are mandating vaccinations for health care workers. He questioned whether the carrots offered are sufficient.

“I think we’re probably running out of the use of that option to get those last folks vaccinated,” said Lam, a Democrat representing Howard and Baltimore counties.

Schrader responded: “I’d say to stay tuned for the governor’s news conference tomorrow.”

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, is scheduled to give an update on the coronavirus pandemic at 2 p.m. Wednesday. His spokesman, Mike Ricci, declined Tuesday to say what Hogan planned to announce.

Some senators suggested that the state should require vaccines and masks for schools, reinstitute an indoor mask mandate or restore the statewide state of emergency that expired Sunday — especially considering the rapid spread of the delta variant of the virus. Nearly every county in Maryland has “high” or “substantial” transmission of the virus, as measured by the federal government, and the testing positivity rate is steadily creeping back toward 5%.

Schrader said Maryland’s counties have the authority to decide the best health measures, such as mask requirements in schools or indoor settings. Many have done so, including Baltimore City, where masks are again required in indoor settings.

The state remains focused on vaccinations, he said.

“We believe the way out of this is through vaccinations and we are continuing to press on that as our primary tool to move through this,” he said.

Schrader said he’s also hopeful that vaccines will be authorized for younger children in the coming months, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval timeline has been steadily accelerating.

The state also is preparing for the likelihood that a supplemental or “booster” dose of the vaccines will be recommended. News reports on Tuesday indicated that such an announcement would be forthcoming from the federal government.

Already, the federal government recommends an extra dose for people with specific conditions that compromise their immune systems. About 200,000 people are eligible for the supplemental shot, which they can get through their doctor or pharmacist, Schrader said.

Republican Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, speaking Tuesday at a back-to-school vaccination event in Prince George’s County, said if universal additional doses are recommended, they can be administered at vaccination clinics, doctors’ offices, pharmacies and local health departments.

He doesn’t expect that the state will reopen the mass vaccination sites that inoculated millions of Marylanders in the winter and spring.

“We have plenty of vaccines, so we don’t see that being a challenge to get people vaccinated, either going to their private physician to pharmacies to various health departments, and if need be,” Rutherford said. “We can set up the mass vax sites again, but at this point, we don’t see that as an issue.”

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Baltimore Sun reporter Clara Longo de Freitas contributed to this article.

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