The prospects for the state’s acting health secretary winning confirmation to the permanent post remain dicey and hinge on dramatic improvements in the state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Senate President Bill Ferguson told reporters Friday.
Ferguson reiterated his threat, first made in mid-January amid chaotic initial efforts to deliver vaccine doses, to torpedo Dennis Schrader’s nomination unless lawmakers are satisfied with how the Maryland Department of Health handles vaccinations.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan nominated Schrader, who has served as acting secretary since Dec. 1, to the position in January. The governor unsuccessfully nominated Schrader for the same job back in 2017.
“There are marginal improvements” in the vaccine rollout in Maryland since then, Ferguson acknowledged, but “those marginal improvement are not sufficient. We need to see a radically better program that [makes it] clear and obvious when and where people get their vaccines.”
The state has been criticized for a slow rollout of vaccines; a Balkanized system of signing up for vaccinations, and inequities in how the vaccine has been distributed, with white residents getting about four times as many doses as Black Marylanders.
Since Schrader’s nomination, the acting health secretary has been grilled by senators on a weekly basis at hearings of a vaccine oversight committee Ferguson created.
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The Baltimore Democrat said senators would currently be “hard-pressed to see the confirmation go smoothly” given widespread confusion and frustration among residents trying to figure out “when and where they can get a vaccine.”
Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, criticized Ferguson’s renewed threats.
Ricci credited Schrader with increasing the state’s vaccination rate by 70% over the last month — “that’s much more than marginal” — and noted that Ferguson’s comments came the day after the governor unveiled new plans to tackle inequities in vaccine distribution.
“What the vaccine rollout really needs is more vaccines, not more politics,” Ricci said.
Vaccine deliveries are expected to speed up significantly in the coming weeks as millions of doses of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine ship from factories and production of the other two vaccines continues to ramp up.
Sen. Ron Young, chair of the Senate’s executive nominations committee, echoed Ferguson’s comments and told The Baltimore Sun that his panel likely won’t consider Schrader’s nomination until its last meeting of this legislative session “and see what happens between now and then.” The General Assembly’s 90-day session is scheduled to end April 12.
“We want to keep everybody’s feet to the fire, so to speak, and see that hopefully the rollout improves vastly,” said Young, a Frederick County Democrat. “We’re not interested in playing politics. We just want to get the vaccine out.”