Maryland’s top health official said Monday that the state is not considering requiring coronavirus vaccines for public school students and teachers, leaving the decision instead up to each school district.
“We’re being very careful not to be intentionally overbearing, and allowing school systems to take the lead in their individual jurisdictions,” Dennis Schrader, the state health secretary said. “We’re being very deferential to them. We’re giving them our guidance and our best advice, but we don’t want to be interventionists in terms of school policy.”
Schrader was pressed on the issue of vaccines in schools by multiple state senators Monday, who held a briefing with the secretary over video.
Senators pushed Schrader to have state health experts consider adding the coronavirus vaccine to the list of required shots for students — at least for those eligible to get the shot, currently those age 12 and older.
About 72% of Maryland children between the ages of 12 and 17 have gotten at least their first shot of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine, Schrader said. Of the three vaccines authorized in the United States, only Pfizer is authorized for those younger than 18. No vaccines are authorized yet for children younger than 12.
At the same time, the biggest jump in new coronavirus cases is coming in the under-20 age group, spurring senators to urge Schrader to take more steps to curb the spread of the virus among young people.
Sen. Clarence Lam, who is a physician, noted that the state government has the authority to set which immunizations are required in order to attend school.
“It sounds like the Maryland Department of Health, under the authority you have, you are not looking to use that as a tool to increase the vaccination rates of teens in our schools, is that correct?” asked Lam, a Democrat representing Howard and Baltimore counties.
“Not at the moment, but you raise an interesting question,” Schrader responded. “Are you advocating that we would make the 12-to-17 COVID with Pfizer a part of the required vaccination regimen within schools?”
Lam responded: “I think that would be one way to increase the vaccination rates in our schools.”
Schrader said he hand his team would “go back and look at your suggestion.”
Sen. Ron Young, a Frederick County Democrat, said he remembered being lined up in school to get smallpox and polio vaccinations without any fuss.
“I think we have the authority to do that, and I think if we want to break this thing, we’ve got to start taking more bold steps,” Young said.
He added: “This thing is going to come back again in six months if we keep letting ... people go unvaccinated.”
Sen. Jim Rosapepe expressed frustration that there hasn’t been any clear decisions on whether to make vaccines a requirement in schools. The state seems to want to leave the decision to school districts, who in turn look to the state for a decision, he said.
“We have the adults pointing fingers at each other while the kids are suffering and the parents are suffering,” said Rosapepe, a Democrat who represents parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties.
If the schools won’t require coronavirus vaccines for students, Rosapepe offered other ideas. Schools check the state’s vaccine data system to identify unvaccinated students and encourage them to be vaccinated during clinics at school, he said.
Or, the state could advertise what the vaccination rate is among a school’s students and staff, just as it has done for nursing homes.
“Marylanders have more information now about where their parents are in nursing homes — the ones that are safe and the ones that are not safe,” Rosapepe said. “The state health department can do the exact same thing for all the schools in the state, so every parent can know how safe their child’s school was.”