In a county where the COVID rate hovers near the highest in the state, word that parents at several Harford high schools were planning private proms raised some eyebrows if not outright alarm — particularly over one woman’s social media post touting a venue that didn’t “go by COVID restrictions dictated by the Governor.”
Harford’s health officer, Dr. David Bishai, said he started “cold-calling” and emailing the parents, telling them he didn’t think they should host such large gatherings, but offering to help make them safer if they did. He could send a mobile unit to test the kids for COVID-19 before their dance, he said, or get them over to Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, where a mass vaccination site opened on Thursday.
“As a health department, we believe in harm reduction,” Bishai said. “We’re not the meanies of the county.”
Offering carrots rather than sticks may well be needed in Harford, which leans Republican and conservative, and has a small but vocal group that rises during the public comment period of council meetings to rail against mask mandates as an affront to freedom and vaccines as unsafe.
“There is a ‘no way’ group,” Bishai said.
Still, he said, the currently adamant eventually might move into the more persuadable group that he calls “the maybes.” Continuing to move the needle toward compliance with gathering restrictions and higher vaccination rates is critical: Harford County’s COVID positivity rate has been about 7.5% lately, compared to just above 5% statewide.
Recent national polls have shown as many as half of Republican men say they won’t get the vaccine. In Harford, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats and most elected county and state officials are Republican, many dispute that, saying they themselves are members of the party and have been vaccinated.
And with the county generally at the same level of vaccination as the state as a whole — about 40 percent have had at least one shot — Republicans are surely among those who have rolled up their sleeves.
“The only ones I know who are resisting are the ones who are against all vaccines,” said Carol Kiple, who heads the Republican Alliance of Harford County.
Last month, Dr. Andy Harris, the conservative Republican congressman whose district includes part of Harford, helped administer vaccines at a health department clinic in Aberdeen. The physician, who in December suggested low-risk individuals wait to be vaccinated until more is known about side effects, said at the clinic that while questions remain, the benefits clearly outweigh the risks.
The vaccine is a hard sell for someone like Jerry Scarborough, a septic servicing company owner who lives in Dublin in northeastern Harford — even though he lost his brother and sister-in-law to COVID within days of each other in late March.
“It literally ate them,” he said. “It ate them up.”
But Scarborough, 67, nonetheless said he will not get the shot. He said he neither trusts the government nor knows what is in those syringes, making it a deal-breaker for him.
“I’m not going to be one of those Guinea pigs,” he said. “Why take a chance? I’m healthy right now.”
Scarborough said he takes the threat of infection seriously, washing his hands, wearing a mask when he must and keeping hand sanitizer in his trucks. If he were to get COVID, he said, he would ride it out. While he said he wouldn’t try to dissuade others from the vaccine, he thinks the risks do not justify the rewards.
“There are a lot of people who will never take this shot,” Scarborough said.
Health officials are hoping that’s not the case. The focus now is on reaching pockets of the county where vaccination rates are below 30%.
While the south central band of the county, arcing from Fallston and Joppa through Bel Air to Havre de Grace, have robust rates in the 45% to 55% range, levels fall off elsewhere.
As in other counties, Black and Hispanic residents have been vaccinated at a lower rate here, which is reflected in the overall vaccination levels in Edgewood and Aberdeen where they are concentrated. The health department has been working to address any concerns or access issues those residents might have, and Bishai said he’s starting to see racial gaps lessening as a result of such efforts.
But in a county that is nearly 80% white, vaccination rates are lagging in some mostly white communities as well, including the more rural northern area of the county just below the border with Pennsylvania. Some say getting a vaccine has been challenging there.
“It wasn’t super accessible,” said Doug Washburn, who lives in Whiteford about 300 feet from the Pennsylvania line.
Washburn, who said he is the ninth generation of his family in Harford, started trying for an appointment in January. In a process familiar to many, he went on multiple websites and waited for a slot to open up. On March 4, he received his first shot, more than 20 miles away in Havre de Grace.
Chad Shrodes, the Harford councilman who represents the northern part of the county, said that while some in his district may be exercising their right not to be vaccinated, he believes others would get the shot if it were more readily accessible.
“I feel there’s been a lot of efforts on some of the more urban areas,” he said. “I think it really comes down to the location of where it’s available.”
Kiple of the Republican Alliance is more blunt.
“A lot of people had to drive a long ways. They were bending over backwards to get the minorities or people who don’t have a car,” she said.
Shrodes said he’s been talking to the health department about having clinics at fire companies, churches or schools in the area.
At the health department, Bishai, who is also an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said he needs data to determine who remains unvaccinated and why, and how best to reach them. He has launched a survey, mailed to county residents and available online, asking questions such as who they turn to for medical advice and what concerns they have about the vaccine.
He and other officials have high hopes for the mass vaccination site at Ripken Stadium, which can administer as many as 3,000 shots a day. Bishai said that kind of capacity is going to help the county get closer to the “herd immunity zone” of about 70% by this summer.
“It’s up to the citizens to come on in,” he said, “and get their shots and put COVID behind us.”
‘I’m definitely on board’
Thursday’s opening day for the mass vaccination site brought unseasonably cold temperatures, a few swirls of snowflakes and a steady stream of cars.
Among those driving through the white tents and rolling down their car windows for a shot was Patrick Levy, 54, of Bel Air. He said he had waited until now to get vaccinated because he didn’t seem to fit any of the earlier eligibility categories. He said he’s ready for more in-person meetings for his job in sales.
“I’m definitely on board,” Levy said. “I’m already trying to reach out to customers and saying, ‘I’ll have both my vaccines.’ And after my two-week period, I’m looking forward to getting out and meeting people in person.”
At a recent meeting of the Harford County Medical Association, COVID and the role of vaccines in stopping it was naturally on everyone’s minds, said its president, Dr. Yuvraj Kamboj.
These days, the Bel Air-based family physician said, he greets his patients both in person or in telehealth visits with the same question.
“The first thing I ask after I say hello is, ‘Did you get your vaccine?’” he said.
Fortunately, the answer is often yes, or that they have an upcoming appointment, he said. Then there are those such as the patient who recently told him, “I’m not going to get a vaccine. It’s been rushed, there’s no long-term data.”
Kamboj doesn’t think he was able to convince that man, at least not yet. He’s been more successful with others, trying to “relieve their anxiety” by telling them he and his family have all been vaccinated.
In addition to vaccinating more people, health officials say residents still have to follow mask mandates and other social distancing guidelines.
“We always had more than other counties people that have trouble with the recommended behaviors,” Bishai said.
Some point to what’s been called COVID fatigue among those weary after more than a year of living under restrictions on gatherings.
“People are just tired of it and not acting responsibly,” said Stephanie McKaughan, who chairs the Dublin/Darlington Community Advisory Board, one of nine citizen groups that provide input to the county government.
Bishai has said younger people have been driving the most recent rise in positivity rates, with older populations more likely to be vaccinated at this point.
People may be getting the sense that the pandemic is winding down when they see, for example, schools partially re-opened for in-person classes, he said.
“When they saw kids getting on the bus, it was a signal, ‘I could have that party, I could go to that restaurant,’” he said.
Not yet, Bishai said.
“COVID is still a threat to everybody who’s not vaccinated,” he said.
He said he hopes that people will be motivated to comply with COVID restrictions and get vaccinated not just for their own safety but to protect their family and friends. The parents planning proms whom he was able to reach, for example, were receptive to measures that would make the events safer for their kids.
That, and the increased availability of vaccines, gives him hope for the coming months, he said Thursday as he watched car after car drive through the Ripken Stadium site.
Levy, waiting the required 15 minutes after receiving the shot before leaving the stadium parking lot, similarly envisioned a return to some kind of normalcy once he gets his second shot and waits another two weeks for immunity to build.
“There’s definitely an endpoint. It’s pretty soon,” he said. “You have to keep your optimism.”