Senators grilled Maryland Department of Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader Wednesday afternoon about his agency’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic following a recent report that hundreds of Marylanders were vaccinated with mishandled doses.
The Baltimore Sun reported last week that TrueCare24 — a state-contracted company — mismanaged vaccination records and may have compromised doses by storing them improperly.
“My concern is that this is not just a problem with TrueCare — [but] that there may be more systemic problems in place here with other vendors that are administering the vaccine as well,” said Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard) at a briefing of the Senate Vaccine Oversight Workgroup.
According to a subsequent report from the Sun, 28% of the people vaccinated by TrueCare24 are incarcerated.
“I’m very concerned about the spoiled vaccines and that they were administered primarily to exactly the communities who are in most need and have been most apprehensive and cynical about the vaccine,” said Sen. Mary L. Washington (D-Baltimore City).
According to Schrader, the Department of Health gave the company notice to address its problems, but no action was taken. The agency became aware of the inappropriate storage of vaccines and opened an investigation on Sept. 2, stopped assigning vaccine clinics to TrueCare24 on Sept. 8 and referred the matter to the agency’s audit team on Sept. 24.
The Department of Health contacted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for guidance on Nov. 10 and was told to contact the 926 people who received the compromised doses. Schrader said his agency began sending emails out on Dec. 30. Those who did not submit their email address will receive letters in the mail.
Schrader said that the department plans to finish the notification process by next week.
“To be sure, I am not happy about how long it’s taken to obtain the clinical next steps,” he told the senators.
The matter is still under review. Schrader said he expects an audit report on his desk by the end of January.
Everyone who received a vaccine from TrueCare24 will be offered an appointment to be re-vaccinated, he said.
When pressed about his dissatisfaction with how the situation has been handled, Schrader responded that “the buck stops” with him.
“We’re having this pattern of something happening that is being, by someone, swept under the rug or not dealt with in a straightforward manner, then the press or we have to uncover it and then that wastes a lot of time and, frankly, it’s costing lives,” she said.
Lam said he’s worried that the issues seen with TrueCare24 are just the “tip of the iceberg,” and that this may be the symptom of a more systemic problem within the Hogan administration.
He also raised a red flag about the whistleblower’s demotion within the department, noting that this has happened in other instances where the agency has flubbed its response to the pandemic.
“Whether it’s the clunky South Korean [COVID] tests, the PPE that were ordered from politically connected companies with no prior history to deliver or the firing of health officers trying to protect their counties, or even the demotion of an internal whistleblower — your decisions as the secretary seem to follow a pattern of behavior that consistently deflects blame oR fires the messenger,” Lam said.
Schrader told Lam that his information was “partially correct but there’s a lot more to the story” and offered to discuss it with the senator offline.
A frequent critic of the Health secretary, Lam, a public health physician, also went after him for his stance against a universal masking mandate, noting that he was quoted in a Washington Post report as saying it was “not on the table.”
“My question to you, Mr. Secretary, is how many more Marylanders must become hospitalized or die before we’ll reinstate a full mask mandate here in the state?” Lam asked.
On Wednesday, 3,118 Marylanders were being hospitalized for COVID-19 — the highest number the state has seen since the pandemic began. Nearly 50 people died between Tuesday and Wednesday.
State health officials have projected that Maryland could reach up to 5,000 hospitalizations in the coming weeks.
On Tuesday, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) proclaimed a 30-day state of emergency, noting that the next four to six weeks are projected to be “the most challenging time of the entire pandemic.”
Hogan issued a masking mandate for all state-run facilities on Monday but declined to issue a universal mandate.
Schrader responded that the Department of Health is looking to impose a cultural shift, which he believes is better achieved with persuasion than force.
“Mr. Secretary, with all due respect, I think you know we’re in the middle of a pandemic, our hospitals are being flooded out right now and I don’t think we have the time to wait on changing culture,” Lam replied.
By Hannah Gaskill