Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson threatened to block a vote on Gov. Larry Hogan’s pick to head the state Department of Health unless coronavirus vaccination efforts improve.
Hogan last week tapped acting state Health Secretary Dennis Schrader — whom Hogan unsuccessfully nominated for the same job in 2017 — for the permanent job. Schrader was deputy secretary until Secretary Robert Neall retired in December.
“I don’t think it would be fair to confirm the acting secretary with where we are with the vaccine program,” Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said Tuesday during an online news conference. “I hope that it changes.”
He did not set metrics, but said improving the vaccination program is “a piece of the puzzle for confirmation.”
The governor shot back at Ferguson at a news conference later Tuesday he called to discuss his budget proposal. Legislators blocking Schrader’s nomination, Hogan said, “would be the worst thing they could possibly do” and likened it to firing a general in the middle of battle.
“That would be a terrible mistake,” the Republican governor said.
The slow initial pace of Maryland’s vaccination efforts has drawn controversy, with some critics blaming the Hogan administration for a lack of detailed planning and coordination. The governor defends the state’s handling of the rollout, pointing to the complexity of the undertaking while promising Maryland soon will be administering vaccines faster than the federal government can deliver new doses.
Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, took a dig at Ferguson in response to his comments.
“Let’s work together to get the heck out of this pandemic, and then you can go back to the Annapolis politics that Marylanders couldn’t care less about,” Ricci said in a statement.
Ricci repeated Hogan’s prediction that with expanded eligibility, the pace of vaccinations will catch up and “you’re going to see stories about not enough appointments, long lines, waiting lists, and demand exceeding supply.”
Ferguson vowed to hold weekly meetings on vaccine distribution to hold state health officials’ feet to the fire, adding that constituents struggling to figure out how to book vaccine appointments have been dialing up lawmakers to ask for help.
“Our goal is not to micromanage the vaccination program,” Ferguson said.
But, he contended, the paramount importance of the rollout means lawmakers must keep a close eye on the program and hold the health department accountable.
Ferguson played a clip at his news conference from a meeting last fall when he asked Neall, then the health secretary, who is ultimately responsible for getting vaccines to residents. Neall responded: “I think the buck stops with the Maryland Department of Health. It is our plan. We’re responsible for carrying it out.”
Maryland Policy & Politics
Ferguson contended that, months later and with Schrader now in charge, things don’t seem to be working well. He cited federal data showing that about 35% of the vaccines delivered to hospitals, health departments and others in Maryland have been administered.
“The department’s had over two months since that declaration to work out a plan to administer vaccines, and yet here we are,” Ferguson said.
“What we need to see is progress,” he said.
Schrader has been caught before in tussles between the legislature and the governor.
After Hogan appointed him as health secretary in 2017, the governor withdrew his nomination when it appeared Schrader might not win Senate confirmation amid apparent backroom wrangling. A Hogan aide later alleged that then-Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller held up the vote as part of a bid to protect a hospital in Miller’s district from competition with another facility. Miller, who died last week, called the allegation “spurious.”
Schrader landed in the deputy health secretary post. During the pandemic, his responsibilities have included leading vaccination operations and directing a “surge” plan to set up extra hospital beds.
He is a former University of Maryland Medical System executive and also served as Maryland’s first homeland security director under then-Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich. He was a deputy administrator for national preparedness at the Federal Emergency Management Agency under Republican President George W. Bush.