Maryland Acting Secretary of Health Dennis Schrader has cleared a key hurdle toward becoming the official head of the agency, after the state Senate Executive Nominations Committee voted in favor of the appointment Monday.
Schrader has been the acting head of the Health Department since December, and Gov. Larry Hogan formally nominated him in January.
But senators, frustrated by some of the Hogan administration’s pandemic-related decisions, such as those around COVID-19 testing and vaccines, held off on confirming him. Instead, they held weekly meetings to evaluate his performance.
On Monday, Senate President Bill Ferguson said he would be supporting Schrader in the committee vote in part because of his willingness to participate in those meetings.
“I do want to commend the acting secretary on his diligence and showing up every single week, and importantly, taking constructive feedback,” Ferguson said. “There were tense meetings. There were really, you know, fiercely held beliefs — I think the pressure from constituents and that that legislators felt was very real — and, you know, at times, there were differing ideas about where to go and how to go, and the plan was adjusted along the way.”
All but two of the committee members present supported Schrader’s appointment. Sen. Clarence Lam, a Democrat who represents parts of Howard and Baltimore counties, voted to reject the appointment, and Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince Geroge’s County Democrat, abstained.
During the hearing, Lam said he was concerned about “shifting narratives” coming from the Maryland Department of Health while Schrader has been in charge.
For example, Lam noted that Schrader initially resisted calls to create a single registration page for vaccine appointments at multiple state-run sites but created such a single sign-up portal later. In another example, state leaders initially blamed vaccine hesitancy for lagging vaccination rates among Black Marylanders, but later acknowledged that the primary problem was about access to vaccines.
“I think this generates a lot of confusion amongst the public when they hear mixed messages and rationale,” Lam said.
In response, Schrader said managing the challenges of the pandemic has been a learning process.
“What we have been doing is adapting to the science and the situation on the ground as it comes at us,” Schrader said.
Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, praised the committee’s vote.
"Acting Secretary Schrader is the right leader to continue steering the state's public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said in a statement.
Schrader has been endorsed by several state medical leaders and organizations, including MedChi and the Maryland Hospital Association.
“There is no person who has worked harder to create the solutions to the myriad problems we faced,” said former Health Secretary Robert Neall, who retired in the fall.
Schrader’s appointment still needs to be confirmed by the full Senate.
This is the second time Hogan has tapped Schrader to lead the Maryland Department of Health. In 2017, Hogan withdrew the nomination when it stalled in the state Senate, before re-appointing him after the legislature had adjourned for the year. The move prompted a prolonged fight over whether Schrader could be paid, and eventually Hogan replaced Schrader with Neall.