Dennis Schrader, who has been under scrutiny for Maryland’s bumpy COVID-19 vaccine rollout, has been confirmed as the state’s health secretary.
Maryland senators voted 45-2 on Friday to confirm Schrader, who has been working as the acting secretary since December. But many said they cast their votes reluctantly, worried that the state’s pandemic response under Schrader has been subpar.
Sen. Mary Washington, a Baltimore Democrat, said the state health department’s choices have left too many marginalized populations vulnerable to the coronavirus, including the elderly and people of color. It’s only been with constant pressure from senators that Schrader and his staff have increased their efforts at ensuring an equitable distribution of the vaccines.
“This is not the type of public health approach, community engagement and experience with diversity that is needed in a leader of a health department,” said Washington, one of two votes against Schrader.
The other “no” vote came from Democratic Sen. Clarence Lam, a physician who has been a persistent critic of Gov. Larry Hogan’s handling of the pandemic.
Other senators praised Schrader for being responsive, answering their phone calls and earnestly heeding their advice. They said they appreciated Schrader’s appearances at weekly video meetings on the vaccination process — meetings that were set up by Senate President Bill Ferguson as Schrader’s nomination hung in the balance.
“I think we hit him hard with a lot of questions and comments, and I think we saw improvements every week along the way,” said Sen. Ron Young, a Frederick County Democrat and member of the committee that held the weekly meetings.
While there are still many problems that need addressing, Schrader “more than earned the opportunity” to stay in the position, Young said.
Sen. Sarah Elfreth, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said she was torn about which way to vote, ultimately deciding not on a vote of confidence but “more of a vote of hope.”
“This was never going to be perfect,” she said of the pandemic response, “but it could have been better.”
Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said the Senate’s role is generally to defer to the governor on appointments, unless senators need to prevent someone wholly unqualified from being placed in a top position.
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“Unless there are clear and obvious reasons, generally that deference should hold,” he said.
Hogan praised the vote for Schrader, saying the secretary has “served the citizens of Maryland well and faithfully” during the pandemic.
“Dennis has never wavered in his decades-long commitment to the people of Maryland,” the Republican governor said in a statement.
Schrader became acting secretary after his predecessor, Robert R. Neall, retired in December. Before that Schrader had been a deputy health secretary, and his responsibilities included leading the state’s “surge plan” to ensure there would be enough treatment beds for a potential spike of coronavirus pandemic.
His career has included working on the business side of the University of Maryland Medical System, as state homeland security director under former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He also served on the Howard County Council.
Schrader was nominated by Hogan to be health secretary once before, in 2017. When his nomination stalled in the Senate, Hogan withdrew Schrader’s nomination and reappointed him after the legislative session, setting off a legal and political fight. Ultimately, Hogan moved Schrader to a role as the health department’s chief operating officer and brought Neall in as secretary.