Harford County residents who want to see their children go back to school, or are worried about an elderly relative or friend’s safety, can help directly speed up the COVID-19 vaccination effort through volunteering, the county’s new health officer said this week.
Speaking before the Harford County Council Tuesday, Dr. David Bishai put out a call for volunteers — and whatever skills they can bring — to help get residents age 75 and older preregistered for vaccination as the county wraps up inoculation of its Phase 1A tier medical workers, first responders and others.
The Harford County Health Department, Bishai said, is looking for medical professionals, logistical experts, IT specialists and anyone with fingers and a phone to volunteer to help contact and preregister seniors in the county for vaccination against the coronavirus. The health department has also opened an online preregistration form on its website for seniors 75 and older.
The county’s Phase 1B schedule includes seniors, those in assisted living or other congregate settings, and education workers along with “continuity of government” workers.
School closures, and the vaccination of school staff, took center stage later at the County Council meeting as Harford County Public School’s Superintendent Sean Bulson spoke. He drew a virtual crowd; 38 people signed up to speak during the designated public comment portion of the meeting — nearly all about schools.
The council meeting came a day after more than 100 people gathered outside the A.A. Roberty Board of Education building to protest school closures and demand reopening.
Bishai said school openings are, in part, tied to vaccine distribution. No 1B group member takes priority over another in the vaccination schedule, he said, so the more people helping with the vaccination effort, the sooner teachers and others can be inoculated.
That, in turn, should help bring down the relevant COVID-19 metrics governing school closures, Bulson said, and help return students to classrooms.
“This push to vaccinate the 1Bs helps us open our schools sooner and it saves lives,” Bishai said. “I need your hands; I need your telephones to help me. That is just as effective at getting our kids back in school as anything else you could do.”
Bulson said the vaccine is the most important tool in bringing kids back into classrooms. While guidance from the Maryland State Department of Education was clear on the permissibility of in-person learning, he said, the protocol is being revised at the state level. It was last updated in November, the superintendent said.
Critically, the vaccine will not have an immediate effect on schools, Bulson said, and social distancing, masking and contact tracing guidelines will remain in place until transmission rates return to a safer level. Vaccines will not be required for education workers, Bulson said.
The guidance currently prescribes little to no in-person learning for counties above a 5% test positivity rate or more than 15 cases per 100,000 people. Harford County well exceeds those thresholds, Bulson said.
As of Wednesday morning, the positivity rate was 8.6% and the new case rate was 41.05%. Both rates have exceeded the state thresholds since early November, just before HCPS opted to return to all-virtual learning.
The plan to return to hybrid learning, depending on the metrics, is in place but “on pause,” Bulson said.
“When our metrics return to a place where it is safe to provide in-person learning, that is what we will be doing,” he said.
Clinics for education workers to get their first doses of the vaccine, Bulson said, are planned to start in February. Their second doses should come in March.
Deputy health officer Marcy Austin said the county has received 5,700 doses of the vaccine so far and used 2,237. The department plans to use all 5,700 doses by the end of next week. It is also hoping to begin receiving larger shipments of the vaccine. Notice of shipments is only given on a weekly basis — typically Sunday or Monday — forcing the department to cross its fingers and wait for what comes.
Any of the 1A cohort who have not received a vaccine still come before the 1B group, Bishai said. He exhorted the community to ask neighbors, friends and family members in the 1A group to see if they have received the vaccine. A complete list of 1A eligible workers is available on the health department’s website.
“Call them, tell them that now is the time to tell the health department that they got missed somehow,” Bishai said.
County council meetings have been frequent venues for frustrated parents to raise issues with the school schedule, even though the council does not have the authority to direct schools to open.
Bulson clarified that, generally, administrative decisions like when to open or close schools fall to the superintendent, but there is precedent for school boards compelling a superintendent to act.
For example, Carroll County’s school board voted last week to return to hybrid learning, against the state guidelines and recommendations from the school system’s superintendent and county health officer.
Many Carroll County teachers are quarantining, and the system is facing some staffing issues.
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As of Wednesday, Harford County recorded 9,848 cases of COVID-19, corresponding to 177 confirmed deaths and four probable deaths.