U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican who has come under fire for his political stances during the pandemic and November’s election, spent his morning Tuesday helping administer doses of the COVID-19 vaccine at a Harford County Health Department clinic in Aberdeen.
“Believe me, this is much more fun than being in Washington,” Harris, a Johns Hopkins-trained anesthesiologist, said. “I’m more than happy to help whenever I can.”
Harris represents Maryland’s First Congressional District, which comprises the Eastern Shore and northern Harford, Baltimore and Carroll counties. He is among seven Republican physicians in Congress who have been urging health officials to consider abandoning the two-dose strategy for the Pfizer and Moderna coronavirus vaccines and instead focus on getting first doses to as many people as possible.
That approach, Harris said, has borne fruit in Great Britain, and is only held up in the U.S. because of the FDA will not change its emergency use authorization. Research in the U.K. has shown one dose may be effective in people who have already had COVID-19; other U.S. government scientists have said there isn’t enough evidence that a single dose provides long-term protection and that two doses will likely be more effective against mutations of the virus.
At a virtual town hall in December, Harris suggested low-risk Marylanders wait to get a coronavirus vaccine until any long-term side effects are assessed.
Questions remain about the long-term effects of the vaccine, Harris said Tuesday, but he acknowledged that the benefits of being vaccinated “clearly outweigh the risks,” particularly for people who have a high risk of serious infection.
Most vaccines do not provoke serious side effects, Harris said, and he expected those skeptical of the vaccine to come around after seeing its effectiveness. Still, those seeking the vaccine should not cut in line, he said, and allow others at higher risk to get it first.
“We still don’t know what the long-term side effects are; we will not know for years,” Harris said. “For people who are at low risk, that is a judgment they are going to have to make.”
Harris’ recommendation to any anti-vaccination constituents is the same as his response as a physician: If a person is at high-risk for a serious COVID-19 infection, they should get the vaccine, but those at a lower risk should talk to their doctor and make the determination themselves. He said he would also resist any federal push to mandate the vaccinations for citizens.
A licensed physician, Harris said he volunteered to help with vaccine distribution in Aberdeen because he was not needed in the District of Columbia until later in the day. It would not be his last time volunteering either, he said, as vaccine distribution expands.
Harford County Health Officer David Bishai said Harris spontaneously volunteered to help after they had a meeting two weeks ago arranged by the National Association of County and City Health Officials. Harris said his presence at the clinic was meant to encourage other health professionals to volunteer to vaccinate others, not for personal promotion.
“I actually practice in a hospital. Is that a PR stunt too?” he said. “I still have a license, and I would urge every licensed physician and nurse to do it.”
Harris has become a lightning-rod for controversy because of his outspoken support for former President Donald Trump — including his unproven claims of election fraud — and not more strongly rebuking the deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol building in January. More recently, Harris has been criticized for his vote against the COVID-19 relief bill and voting “present” on a symbolic resolution condemning the conspiracy theory group Q-Anon.
Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, whose term will end in 2022, is considering running for another office, including the first district’s congressional seat, he previously told the The Baltimore Sun. Glassman had not made a decision as of a Tuesday, according to a spokesperson. Democrat Heather Mizeur, a former state delegate and gubernatorial candidate, has formally announced her candidacy in the first district.
On Tuesday, Harris said he is focused on his district now and that the 2022 elections are far off.
“We will get to election year, but the fact of the matter is next year is election year,” he said.
Harris said he voted against the COVID-19 relief bill because it only spends 9% of what’s funded on COVID-19 relief measures and called it a “liberal wish list.”
Asked if there was room for compromise in a divided Congress, Harris said some issues were able to find common ground between two opposing viewpoints, but others like second amendment rights and taxation had no room for compromise.
“We can compromise, but there are some principles that you do not compromise on,” he said. “On others like taxes, for instance, look, I think Americans are taxed too much. If I think you should not raise taxes and someone says you should, what is the compromise? Because raising it a little is raising taxes.”
On Harford County’s effort to have a mass vaccination site locally, Harris said he was supportive, but that separate vaccine clinics could cover an equivalent number of people. Mass vaccination sites can lead to long lines and be inaccessible to vulnerable communities outside the immediate area, he said.
He is also keeping an eye on where doses of the federally sourced vaccine were going in the district Harris said.
Many less populated Eastern Shore counties, which Harris represents, have had disproportionately higher allocations of the vaccine per capita. Harford, the eighth-most populous jurisdiction in the state, received 92 doses per 1,000 people, the second-lowest per capita allocation in Maryland. By comparison, Kent County, the least populous county, received 283 doses per 1,000 residents.
But Harris said the number of doses per capita does not give a complete picture because people get shots in other jurisdictions.
“Sometimes you have to look at the source of the data and how it is obtained,” Harris said.
Tuesday’s clinic was also notable because it was the Harford County Health Department’s first at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen.
Zach Kosinski, the department’s Harm Reduction Program Coordinator, said Tuesday’s clinic aimed to vaccinate 600 people as the they adjust to the new space. That is fewer vaccines than it had administered at its previous locations at the McFaul Activities Center and Patterson Mill High School, both in Bel Air, but staff and volunteers are seeing how the operation flows before inviting more people in. The number of doses given at the site will increase in the future, he said.
“We want to be sure we are prepared to handle capacity in the space while maintaining social distancing,” Kosinski said. “We have done days with over 1,200 at Patterson Mill.”
Anecdotally, Kosinski said, the clinic saw a larger number of people in the 1B-schedule show up to get vaccinated. He said the health department is focusing on finishing up the 1B group so it can move on to the 1C group in earnest. Most vaccines at the site are given by school nurses, he said.
Normally, Kosinski works with HIV patients or people with sexually transmitted diseases, he said, but had to pivot and focus on COVID-19. He said the health department has ample volunteers, but they take some time to get into the system because they need to be vetted and scheduled to volunteer, which happens a month in advance. Those volunteers could work the clinics and allow health department staff to return to their areas of expertise, he said.
Jennifer Ortyl received her second dose of the vaccine at the clinic Tuesday. She teaches at a county school — her ninth year of teaching — and said she was happy at the prospect of returning to some semblance of normality. Though she’s been fully vaccinated, she said she still plans to follow all the masking and social distancing guidelines.
“I am not acting like a superhero just because I got this,” she said with a laugh. “I also have four kids so I want to make sure that I’m doing everything I can to be safe.”
Though Ortyl said the pandemic has been trying, some good things have come out of it. Efficiency has been improved in a number of areas — pickups at stores and restaurants have been streamlined, and virtual school, while not ideal, has been explored. Still, she said, she misses travel and wants to see her family members without wearing a mask.