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by Judith Hruz
Finding COVID-19 vaccines has been a challenge for many county residents.
The number of vaccines sent to Montgomery County for distribution has allowed the county Department of Health, hospitals and pharmacies to inoculate only a fraction of the county’s residents. And traveling outside of the county to attend one of the state’s mass vaccination sites is not an option for some of the poorer or older Montgomery residents.
On top of those challenges is the challenge some people face when they arrive for their vaccines and are told they are not eligible.
Vaccine Hunters, an organization that was formed by several Sherwood High School teachers, has not only been helping residents navigate the registration process and secure a vaccination appointment, but is stepping in when people have been turned down or treated unfairly when they arrive at the vaccination site.
Members of the organization say they have intervened to help in several cases of racial profiling.
During a March 8 media briefing with County Council President Tom Hucker (D-Dist. 5) and Vice President Gabe Albornoz (D-At large), members of Vaccine Hunters discussed three incidents at which the minority residents were asked for paperwork that was not asked of others who were not minorities.
According to co-founder Maisie Lynch, the local organization, which has garnered support from elected officials and has spawned other Vaccine Hunters groups around the state, is asking for three things: a multi-lingual equity hotline that people who have challenges can call for help immediately; clear multi-language signs at all vaccination sites that tell residents that no paperwork or health insurance is required for a vaccination; and that the same information appears on all vaccination websites and in multiple languages.
Hucker said the county agrees with Vaccine Hunters and wants even more: more doses for the local health department that is the same amount other counties are getting per capita; a mass vaccination site in Montgomery County; and a uniform registration system across the state.
He said the number of doses received by Montgomery County, whose population is nearly 1.1 million people, is far fewer per capital than elsewhere in Maryland, especially the smaller counties.
“Bring the vaccinations to the greatest numbers,” he said, calling the fact that Montgomery County does not have a mass vaccination site “a complete slap in the face.”
Montgomery County leaders say they are ready to set up a mass vaccination site if they can get more vaccines and the state’s go-ahead.
Tania Perez-Fuentes, a member of Vaccine Hunters, said three incidents — residents in Charles, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties — were reported to the organization between March 4 and 8.
She said it is difficult to get some minority residents past the fear of vaccines, and now they have the fear of being questioned.
During another press briefing on March 12, members of Vaccine Hunters welcome a Montgomery County resident who took her father to a grocery store in Frederick where she and he were humiliated at how he was treated. He left the store without being vaccinated.
Lynch said recounting the incidents is not designed to get anyone in trouble, but to help push for improved access and a more equitable rollout of vaccines.
County Executive Marc Elrich has repeatedly stressed the need for equity in giving out vaccinations.
During a Feb. 3 media briefing, he said it is “absolutely essential that we are proactive about this.”
Dr. Raymond Crowel, director of Montgomery County Health and Human Services, agrees, noting that some of the ZIP codes with the largest minority populations have the largest number of COVID-19 cases in the county.
“We need to make sure we are attacking the virus where it is attacking us,” he said at a recent meeting.
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