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Maryland’s vaccine rollout, health secretary pick merit scrutiny | COMMENTARY

The Maryland National Guard helps Anne Arundel County Heath Department staff give out the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to Phase 1A and 1B recipients at a clinic held at the Anne Arundel Community College, Monday, January 18, 2021. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette).
The Maryland National Guard helps Anne Arundel County Heath Department staff give out the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to Phase 1A and 1B recipients at a clinic held at the Anne Arundel Community College, Monday, January 18, 2021. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette). (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

By most every metric available, Maryland’s rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines has been disappointing. Phone lines clogged, eligible seniors and others reporting problems getting appointments, complaints rising, and the most important standard available — the percentage of available vaccinations actually administered to state residents — too low for comfort. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of last week, Maryland had used just 32% of its vaccine supply, which is slightly below the national average of 35% and far below top performers like nearby West Virginia (69%) and the District of Columbia (48%). It would be unfair to describe it as a disaster given there are some states doing worse (Virginia is at 24%, for example), but it’s worrisome given this state’s health care expertise and infrastructure.

That’s why Senate President Bill Ferguson’s announcement Tuesday that Gov. Larry Hogan’s nominee to be secretary of the Maryland Department of Health, acting secretary Dennis Schrader, would not be confirmed unless vaccination efforts improve seemed no more than a mild rebuke. Isn’t it a purpose of the General Assembly to hold state government accountable for its performance? Doesn’t the state Senate have a constitutional role in confirming nominees? Indeed, Governor Hogan and others in his administration have predicted that the distribution numbers will improve promptly, with the shortage of supply at the national level the far more limiting factor. So what’s the big deal?

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Yet based on the reaction from the second floor of the State House one might have thought Senate President Ferguson was some kind of political mob boss unfairly harassing a dedicated public servant. During a news conference, the governor called refusing to seat Mr. Schrader in the top job the “worst thing they could possibly do” and likened it to pulling a general mid-battle. His spokesman dismissed the move as “Annapolis politics” that would interfere with the pandemic response, while also observing that the pace of vaccinations has picked up. “I’m really still not even sure what Senator Ferguson is so worked up about,” Michael Ricci, the governor’s communications director wrote in an email to The Sun on Wednesday.

Granted, there is some political history here. In 2017, Mr. Hogan nominated the same individual for the same job, and it was held up by then-Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a product of a dispute over a hospital in the late Senator Miller’s district and concern over the medical qualifications of Mr. Schrader (the onetime Howard County Council member has a degree in industrial engineering and previously served as director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security). Governor Hogan ultimately withdrew the nomination prior to any vote and installed Mr. Schrader in the No. 2 slot, which many Democrats saw as an unseemly circumvention of Senate oversight. Given Senator Miller’s penchant for hardball politics and Senate prerogatives, Mr. Schrader might well have been rejected out of hand this second time around if the longest serving state Senate president in U.S. history had not lost his battle with cancer just last week.

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Governor Hogan can surely quibble over who bears the most fault for supply line problems — hospitals, local governments or the feds. But as the well-regarded Robert R. Neall, his former health secretary who retired early last month, announced at a news conference last fall: “The buck stops with the Maryland Department of Health. It is our plan. We’re responsible for carrying it out.” Surely, that’s what Marylanders want to hear from the administration — a pledge to do better and perhaps even a vote of confidence that Mr. Schrader is capable of doing just that. There’s no denying that past state health secretaries have been more steeped in medicine.

What’s concerning here is not just that Mr. Hogan is unnecessarily testy (there’s a lot of that going around these days thanks, in no small part, to the COVID-19 pandemic), but that he’s also showing signs of hubris, a disease that’s been known to plague this and previous administrations from time to time. The Republican governor can’t expect the Democratically controlled legislature to genuflect every time he proposes anything, whether it’s a budget, a cabinet nominee or how best to get more doses of vaccine into more arms. Ask Democrats who have held the same post. During his two terms as governor, William Donald Schaefer’s disagreements with lawmakers, including with President Miller, were legendary.

Mr. Hogan seems to prefer locking horns over negotiating compromises. It’s why he’s racked up so many vetoes, and veto overrides, during his time in office. It certainly gives the appearance of putting up a fight. But it doesn’t lead to accomplishments. The governor may cultivate an image of being above the political fray, but then sometimes such posturing is just politics, too.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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