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Brianna Wilmer holds her newborn daughter, Au’Bree Aretter Dior Butler, who was University of Maryland Shore Regional Health’s first baby of 2021. Au’Bree was born Saturday, January 2, 2021.

Even health care, frontline workers are split on COVID vaccinations

CENTREVILLE — COVID-19 vaccinations are rolling out across the Mid-Shore and many are taking advantage of the opportunity to get immunized. But just because it’s available now doesn’t mean all frontline health care workers and residents are anxious to receive the vaccines.

A majority of those health care workers interviewed were pleased to have it offered. But many others have reservations about the vaccines which were developed at lightning-fast speeds.

One teacher said on Wednesday, Dec. 30, Caroline County was already moving to stage 1B of the vaccinations, so she has already received her vaccine. “Since I’ve had half a dozen or more kiddos in my room with no windows and one door every day since September 13, I’m very excited to have some protection and am taking the opportunity to protect myself and hopefully my family,” she said.

Caroline has quickly worked through the process, receiving and giving over 550 doses to county staff under Group 1A — including all healthcare workers, social services, law enforcement, public works, and fire department employees, private physicians, morticians, physical therapists, and optometrists — and also CCPS health room nurses who are now assisting with vaccine clinics. — were given the option to receive a vaccine.

According to Sandi Barry, Caroline County Public Schools, after direction from the health department, on Tuesday CCPS sent an email to all staff advising that the vaccine was being offered to employees on Dec. 30 at the health department and gave them the link to sign up through the health department.

Barry said they also let staff know another clinic is planned for next Wednesday, but clarified sign up is not yet open as they await the next shipment of vaccine. Barry said she did not yet have numbers on how many staff received the vaccine, but by midday of the email all available appointment slots were filled.

With relatively little time lapsed since the vaccine against COVID-19 has been released, those with reservations, said they were based largely on possible side effects or complications. Said one health care worker, “I won’t be able to get the vaccine at all as I have allergies to foods and medications,” the decision was made on advice of her doctor, she said.

“I work in ICU, but am pregnant and since they excluded pregnant women from vaccine studies, I will not be getting it at this time,” said another health care worker.

She said she looks forward to forthcoming studies including pregnant women and reading additional vaccination research. She anticipated people weighing in on her decision, but politely and firmly said she was aware of recommendations issued by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other medical group but had discussed the decision with her obstetrician (OB) and they agreed it was the best decision to make for her health at this time.

Another woman also in health care said she was pregnant as well and her OB office was strongly recommending that she get the vaccine, “I’m not going to,” she said.

And making that decision is personal. Elizabeth Ambrosini said she was very hesitant to get the vaccine. “I was definitely on the fence about it but ultimately I decided to do it. I feel fine so far,” she said.

Trish Wells said she will get the vaccine, but with trepidation. “I have RA [rheumatoid arthritis], on Humira,” said Wells, “[and the effects have] Not [been] studied yet with immunosuppressants....and CDC recommends it.” Still, Wells believes her company could mandate the vaccine as well.

Nursing student Krista Brown said she can’t wait for her turn to receive the vaccine, and Heather Efland, a former teacher in Queen Anne’s said she has three sisters in health care, who got their vaccine last week and have had no problems. “Seems to me the choice is the getting the vaccine or getting the virus,” Efland said.

Another woman said she had the coronavirus and still plans to get the vaccine.

Others want to see more conclusive evidence the vaccine is safe before receiving it, said one man, “Nope, not getting it now. I will wait for my wonderful fellow Americans to get it and be the test mule. We shall see how everyone is doing several years down the road who took the vaccine and if all [is] well. I’ll take it.”

While some employers may eventually choose to make the vaccine mandatory, the state’s largest health care employer on the Mid-Shore is not following that path.

Media Relations Director for the University of Maryland Medical System Michael Schwartzberg said it is absolutely not mandatory for their staff to receive the vaccine, and is totally voluntary as clearly outlined in their policy and has been reiterated multiple times in staff webinars.

“Certainly achieving high-level immunization coverage throughout the University of Maryland Medical System to ensure the safety of all of our staff and patients is our goal,” Schwartzberg said, “While we are encouraging COVID-19 vaccination, it is voluntary and not mandatory for all UMMS employees. We are continuing to make excellent progress across the System with vaccinating frontline healthcare workers.”

Schwartzberg did not have exact numbers of those who had received vaccine by hospital and outpatient center but said by mid-January, they expect that all UMMS staff who wish to receive the COVID vaccination will have received their first dose, and some will have received their second dose.

“We’ve quickly progressed from receiving a limited supply of less than 1,000 initial doses on December 14 to standing up mass vaccination clinics at all 13 of our System hospitals, after receiving the vast majority of our vaccine supply (Moderna) last Wednesday. As of December 30, we’ve held more than 100 vaccination clinics across the System, vaccinating more than 9,100 employees, and have additional clinics with nearly 18,000 appointments scheduled over the next several weeks,” Schwartzberg said. “We are working at full-speed across the System to safely vaccinate staff, balancing logistical and operational requirements, including rigorous preparation procedures for each vaccine, ensuring appropriate monitoring of each employee vaccinated, and coordinating to ensure vaccinations for staff working within the same department are spaced appropriately. We expect to continue receiving regular distribution of vaccine from the state and will administer all vaccine as we receive supply.”

Talbot, Dorchester and Queen Anne’s counties, alongside Caroline, have all begun administering vaccines to those in Group 1A.

Each county will administer the vaccine following their designated plan. Dorchester County Health Department held its first private vaccination clinic on Tuesday for DCHD’s vaccinators and testing staff, which also allowed staff to practice providing clinics, said

Angela Grove, Health Education Program Manager. Among the 31 employees vaccinated was Roger L. Harrell, Health Officer, and Dr. Casey Scott, Deputy Health Officer, for Dorchester County. “The vaccine is another tool in our toolbox to control this virus,” said Harrell. “It’s an exciting day to have this science-based, safe vaccine to offer to our community. However, we still need to wear face coverings, social distance, and wash our hands.”

DCHD is working with the identified priority groups to coordinate vaccination efforts and held its first clinic for 42 health care providers not affiliated with the hospital on Dec. 31. Additionally, DCHD collaborated with Walgreens to coordinate vaccine administration for 136 first responders from Emergency Management Services and law enforcement and other health care professionals.

Similar clinics are taking place in Talbot and Queen Anne’s as vaccines arrive and clinics can be scheduled. Statewide, Walgreens and CVS pharmacies are working with the Maryland Department of Health to vaccinate staff and residents of long-term care facilities and hospital personnel.

Character Counts celebrates 20-years in QA

CENTREVILLE — A major milestone for Queen Anne’s County for youth, the vastly successful Character Counts! program celebrated their 20th anniversary in 2020.

Character Counts! was brought to the county in the year 2000, to be infused by volunteer coaches from local businesses, local government and caring individuals into the public schools providing training in character education for children. Founded nationally in 1992, at a three day summit of prominent youth, educators and character education scholars in Aspen. Colorado, today, there are hundreds of member organizations serving millions of children and their families every year. It is the largest character development organization in the world.

The program, initially focused on the development of core ethical traits — trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship (known as the Pillars of Character) — has evolved reflecting current research and best practices to become a comprehensive student development program embracing academic, social and emotional skills and traits as well as the Six Pillars of Character.

Local Queen Anne’s County citizens became especially concerned following the mass shooting of students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. A study showed the demographics between Littleton and Queen Anne’s County were very similar. Those concerned citizens wanted to do something to help prevent such a tragedy from happening here.

Almost immediately, those citizens held public meetings to ask residents of the county what they felt could be done for students? Two open meetings were held; one at Queen Anne’s County High School, the other at Kent Island High School. Those meetings eventually resulted in recommending involvement in the Character Counts program. Then, QACPS Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Bernard Sandusky, approved the program, as long as it was to be taught by volunteers from the community.

Some of those local residents who pushed to have the program implemented in the county schools were; the late Mary Ruth Meredith (a retired county teacher), community activist Linda Walls, local businessman Wayne Humphries, and Queen Anne’s County Local Management Board Director Mike Clark, to mention just few.

The Character Counts program recognizes: people do not automatically develop good moral character; therefore, conscientious efforts must be made to help young people develop the values and abilities necessary for moral decision making and conduct; these core ethical values transcend cultural, religious and socio-economic differences; and character education is foremost, an obligation of families and faith communities, but schools and youth-service organizations also have a responsibility to help develop the character of young people.

In 1999, Christine Perkins was then serving as QA Coordinator for the after-school program. She would eventually be hired to become the first Character Counts Coordinator. Said Perkins, “After Columbine, character education was a hot topic all across the nation.”

Humphries said, “The entire country was in shock after the Columbine shootings. During our public meetings, two things became clear that citizens wanted, one, a good after school program, which we had, and two, a program that would teach character values. Meredith was already teaching a similar program known as “Winners Stand Tall” at Kennard Elementary School. The Character Counts program was what we agreed on for character development for our students, Humphries said. “Over the years, all of our county schools have participated. We’ve had amazing support from the community. We even have “Businesses of Character”. More than 60 local businesses have adopted the Six Pillars as part how they run their businesses. Many of our business owners who have become Character Counts Coaches, have been able to see our students in a way they otherwise would not have seen them — learning positive values to live in their lives. I wish you could see many of the letters the children have written their coaches over the years. The children realize that their coaches care about them. They realize the coaches are doing this because they care — the coaches aren’t getting paid to do this!”

Mike Clark added, “This was one of the first initiatives the Local Management Board ever put forward in the county. We have some great Character Counts Coordinators over the years, starting with Christine Perkins, who served for seven years. Chris was followed by the late Jacki Carter. Jacki lived Character Counts. She even had the license plate on her car with Character Counts printed on it! Jacki was followed by Elaine Butler before she moved out of county, and now we have CC Specialist Coach Kelly Huber, and CC and Community Mentoring Coordinator Patricia Hackleman. They’ve all done a great job.”

Clark said the program has evolved over the years. “Originally, it was like a blanket covering all the students with the Six Pillars of Character. Now, it still does the same, but we also have a mentoring program within Character Counts for students who need personal intervention. The who program is to make our communities stronger.”

Humphries said, “We’ve had over 1,000 coaches during the past 20-years. I’d say the program has move than exceeded our goals and expectations. A couple years back, we had a special ceremony for our graduating class that had experienced the Character Counts program every year since they entered school in the county.”

Over the past 20-years, Character Counts, for the most part, have been funded by private grants and fundraising, and not on local taxpayer’s backs.

The pandemic has not stopped Character Counts lessons from continuing to be taught via online instruction. CC Coach Specialist Kelly Huber shared, “We’re excited to be part of our students virtual school day. Thank you to our teachers, our amazing coaches, the QAC Library and QACTV for assisting in this. In October, our States Attorney Lance Richardson began our first lesson teaching about “TRUSTWORTHINESS”. November’s Pillar was “CITIZENSHIP”, and Sheriff Gary Hofmann was on the set discussing ways to be a good citizen. Anyone can go to the QACTV YouTube station or view these episodes on the Character Counts! website http://www.peopleofcharacter.org . “

She added, “We were not able to have our annual Character Counts! Appreciation Dinner this past year, but we did recognize several special people. We did meet with the county commissioners on November 24, and our 2019-2020 Coach of the Year Jay Kenty was recognized, and Character Counts! Coach Fred Sherriff was recognized for having served as a coach for the past 10-years. Fred became the ninth coach to serve for 10-years in that capacity.”

In celebration of their anniversary the county commissioners presented the county’s Character Counts! organization with a proclamation for service over the past 20-years to the children of the county.

If you are interested in becoming a Character Counts! coach or learning more about the program, go online at http://www.facebook.com/CharacterCountsQAC . They can also be reached by phone at 410-758-6677.

Maryland's problem not revenue, but spending - Shore delegation talks priorities for new session

CHESTERTOWN — Trading gathering to eat breakfast and talk about the upcoming legislative session for a Zoom call, the Upper Shore delegation provided their thoughts on the 442nd session of Maryland’s General Assembly set to convene in Annapolis Jan. 13.

The annual Pre-Legislative Session Discussion, hosted by the Kent County Chamber of Commerce and the Queen Anne’s County Chamber of Commerce, was held Wednesday morning, Jan. 6, with Sam Shoge, executive director of the Kent chamber, serving as the moderator.

Some of the hour-and-a-half-long discussion was dedicated to familiar topics to those living on the Shore, like funding the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, often referred to as “Kirwan,” broadband and health care. Another portion of the conversation was dedicated to COVID-19’s impact on government functions this year.

Though the novel strand of the coronavirus was infecting people globally at the start of the 2020 session, the full force of the virus’s impact was not felt in Maryland until about mid-March. At the General Assembly, efforts to lessen the spread of the highly contagious virus meant prematurely ending last year’s 90-day session.

In 2021, lessening the spread means a switch to a primarily virtual format, which will impact public participation in the legislative process. Still, Del. Jeff Ghrist, R-36-Caroline, said there are some aspects of government that cannot be affected by the pandemic.

“The process can’t change, honestly, the bill process is in the statute. It’s in the Maryland Constitution,” Ghrist said.

One change he noted is that all public hearings in the committees will be conducted virtually — posing challenges for people with internet connectivity issues.

When he first tried to speak, Ghrist, who lives on a farm in Caroline County, had lag time with his connection jumping in and out.

“This certainly reinforces the need for broadband,” Shoge said as Ghrist tried to connect.

Del. Jay Jacobs, R-36-Kent, said in-person testimony in the House of Delegates will be limited to 50 people. It’s not clear how it will be decided who gets to testify or if the choice will be made through random selection.

In the Senate, state Sen. Stephen Hershey, R-36-Upper Shore, said four people will be allowed to testify in person in support of a bill and four people against. An additional two people will be permitted for in-person testimony who are in favor of a bill, but with amendments.

“That’s a bit concerning,” Hershey said.

With almost 1,000 bills already pre-filed — Ghrist said that’s a higher than normal number — Hershey said random selection could mean fewer stakeholders will be able to participate in bill hearings. Hearing their input, he said, often helps provide senators with “a lot of useful information” on how a bill might affect the real world.

Hershey said advocacy groups are another resource legislators have used in the past to determine a bill’s impact that could be impacted by random selection.

“It is a bit concerning how those that will be able to testify will be chosen to do so,” Hershey said.

Ghrist also expressed concerns over limiting in-person testimony. He said he expects criminal justice reform, for example, to be a big issue this year that needs “real, meaningful input from the public.”

“What concerns me the most about that is the best testimony is in person,” Ghrist said. “It’s going to be very difficult for the stakeholders — the people where these bills are going to have a meaningful impact on their lives or their business or their family or their friends.”

Hershey said he expects fewer bills to be “left in the drawer this year” as a result of the virtual format, making decisions on whether a bill will move forward or not more swift than usual.

Del. Steve Arentz, R-36-Queen Anne’s, urged the public to keep in contact with their elected officials by writing personal letters or emails in regard to bills as opposed to using form letters.

“Personal experience is always paramount,” Arentz said. “Get involved. Keep your county commissioners, county councils up to date.”

A rollover from last year’s session and a priority for this session, Hershey said, is that the assembly will likely override Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future bill, which aims to improve the state’s public education system.

As a “simple answer to a complex question,” he said if the blueprint does go into effect, it will need corrective bills. Hershey said the majority party has “worked too hard on this piece of legislation to allow the veto to be sustained,” however legislators are aware “a number of changes” are needed to keep the bill from unfairly impacting Kent County taxpayers.

Ghrist said the delegation had a “productive” virtual meeting with Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-43-Baltimore City and chairperson of the House Appropriations Committee, and the Kent County Commissioners to discuss the particular impacts the bill might have on residents here.

Ghrist said McIntosh is open to finding a solution for residents here. He said Kent County faces the challenge of being unable to further raise property taxes like Talbot or Worcester counties as a way to generate the revenue needed to fund the bill’s multi-million dollar price tag.

“We’re going to be on this,” Ghrist said. “We’re certainly very, very committed to making sure the impact to Kent County taxpayers will be eliminated as best as we possibly can. And that’s all we can do.”

Following the theme of taxes, the conversation turned to talk of a new digital advertising tax — the first of its kind in the nation though it is being looked at in a “number of states,” Hershey said. While the tax was aimed at large digital advertisers like Google, Amazon and Facebook, Hershey said it could also impact smaller businesses.

The bill was passed last session after being combined with a tax on tobacco products, but Hershey said he will support Hogan’s veto.

“I think right now at least the arguments that we’ll make is that the pandemic and the regulations that we’ve had to put on small businesses have been overbearing enough that we don’t need to add something else to them to make operating their businesses more difficult,” Hershey said.

Ghrist said Maryland does not have a revenue problem, but rather a spending problem.

“Each and every year we pass bills, we pass dozens of bills with fiscal notes,” Ghrist said. “Those are things that the media won’t talk about. Those are the things that the majority party doesn’t want to talk about in Annapolis.”

Ghrist said Maryland is one of the wealthiest states in the country, “thanks to our proximity to Washington, D.C.,” meaning small businesses should not have to bear the burden of taxes to generate revenue.

“Is this really what we want to do during a pandemic when we’re losing businesses every single day? No, I would hope not,” Ghrist said. “So let’s deal with the spending problem first before we start talking about hurting businesses and pulling more of their revenue away with taxes.”

Touching other issues the public might see during the legislative session and priorities, Jacobs said a bill banning plastic bags has been pre-filed. He said he was not in support of it because of the timing and that it could put additional stress on small businesses. He said there is some concern about how hygienic reusable bags are given the pandemic.

Another piece of legislation Jacobs said he is looking to reexamine is a bill he sponsored last year concerning the Conowingo Dam. A vote was never taken on it due to the premature closure of the 2020 session.

Arentz said he is looking at legislation to lessen the fine for people found in possession of small amounts of marijuana, noting the cost to process those infractions is greater than the fine itself.

Ghrist said he plans to be “very deliberate” with the bills he introduces and to make sure nothing is passed under the radar.

Jacobs said he also wants to keep the burden off Maryland residents.

“You know everything is stressful,” Jacobs said. “We’re going to have to be mindful of where people’s revenues are coming from. I think that we’re just going to have to proceed with a caution light this year and try to not do anything too radical in any one direction.”

Bay Times and Record Observer editor Hannah Combs contributed to this article.

Scientists carefully conduct a seine net survey along the Chesapeake Bay during the summer.