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Maryland Health Secretary Says Not Considering Student Vaccine Mandate


Members of a Maryland Senate committee are pushing the state Health Department to mandate vaccines for all eligible public school students. However, state Health Secretary Dennis Schrader says such a mandate is not under consideration.

Since the new school year began, children between the ages of 0 and 19 have seen the highest rate of increase in COVID-19 cases, according to data from the Department of Legislative Services. The data was presented at the beginning of a meeting Monday of a committee charged with overseeing state vaccination efforts.

The data also show that about 62% of children between 12 and 17 years old are fully vaccinated.

Sen. Clarence Lam, a Democrat who represents parts of Baltimore and Howard counties, asked Schrader what the state health department is doing to increase vaccines among school-aged youth.

“You do have the tools to be able to require vaccination of students going into schools,” Lam said. “Is that something that you're looking at?”

Schrader said mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for students is not something the health department is currently considering.

“Our first focus right now has been getting the routine vaccination rates up,” Schrader said, referring to the slate of vaccines students already are required to get, such as those that protect against measles and chickenpox. “Particularly for kindergarten and seventh grade — we want to make sure that those are taken care of, but we'll go back and take a look at your suggestion.”

Other senators echoed Lam’s call.

Sen. Ron Young, a Democrat from Frederick and the committee’s oldest member, recalled lining up for polio and smallpox vaccines in school.

“There wasn't any question. They lined us up, and they went down the line, and we all got ‘em,” Young said. “I think we have the authority to do that, and I think if we want to break this thing, we've got to start taking more bold steps.”

Young asked why the state can’t require every teacher to get the vaccine, the way health care workers are required to be vaccinated.

“We've been reluctant to force people into doing these things,” Schrader told Young. “We've had a lot of success so far encouraging, cajoling, educating.”

When Sen. Mary Washington, a Baltimore City Democrat, asked more broadly about the health department’s role when it comes to preventing the virus from spreading in schools, Schrader said the department has been working with the State Department of Education to provide guidance.

“We're being very careful not to be intentionally overbearing, and allowing the school systems to take the lead in their individual jurisdictions,” Schrader said. “We're giving them our guidance and our best advice, but we don't want to be interventionist in terms of school policy.

But Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Prince George’s County Democrat, said the local system-by-system approach isn’t working.

“What I’ve seen going on over the past two months is the state health department, the State Department of Education, say the local school systems can require vaccinations. And I've seen the local school system, superintendent says the state health department can require vaccinations,” Rosapepe said. “So we have the adults pointing fingers at each other while the kids are suffering and the parents are suffering.”

Rosapepe added his voice to the chorus calling for mandatory COVID-19 vaccines. But if the state Department of Health does not want to do that, he offered a few other ideas.

He said schools are able to access the state database that identifies who has been vaccinated.

“I would encourage you to aggressively work with the school systems to identify in every school which kids have been vaccinated and which kids haven't been vaccinated, so you can take your mobile vaccination unit — so you take to the school,” he said, “and you go into the classroom and say, ‘OK, Charlie, you haven’t been vaccinated. We're doing vaccinations in the cafeteria at two o'clock.’”

Alternatively, he offered another option: The health department could publish vaccination rates at every school and rank them, much like the nursing home rankings the department publishes each week.

Rachel Baye is a reporter for WYPR's newsroom.
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