A vaccinator prepares to administer a COVID-19 vaccine at a county-run clinic at White Oak Recreation Center in early January 2021. Credit: File Photo

Uninsured residents will be given priority when it comes to government distribution of the new COVID-19 booster, county Health Officer Dr. Kisha Davis said during a Tuesday presentation to the Montgomery County Council in Rockville.

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration approved new COVID-19 boosters from Pfizer and Moderna that is formulated to target the XBB.1.5 subvariant of the virus. But for the first time, the federal government will not be covering the cost of the vaccine. Most insured residents will go through pharmacies or primary care providers to receive their vaccines, but the county will receive vaccines for uninsured children and a limited number for uninsured adults.

“This is a new advancement that we’re really excited about,” Davis said.

The Department of Health and Human Services is coordinating with Montgomery Cares providers, community hubs, regional service centers and other community partners to provide free COVID-19 boosters to uninsured residents through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Bridge program, which aims to make vaccines accessible to people without private insurance.

The county is continuing to provide free at-home COVID-19 test kits and masks at local libraries. The CDC also maintains a list of no-cost COVID-19 testing sites.

Davis said while experts are predicting a moderate COVID-19 season, with numbers expected to lower following the late summer uptick, it’s still important to vaccinate for COVID-19 as well as the flu and RSV.

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Montgomery County did better than the national average when it came to booster vaccines–for example, 33% of residents between ages 18-64 got the booster in 2022 and 2023, in comparison to 15% nationally – but Davis said, “we could still do a little bit better.” Davis said she hopes the new booster will be an opportunity to get more people boosted.

The theme of reaching and prioritizing underrepresented groups was echoed throughout a presentation and report given to the council on Tuesday about the health department’s work so far this year.

One way the department is looking to do this is through a new mobile health clinic that would travel to community events. The initiative had its soft launch at Poolesville Day in September, and the department is still anticipating acquiring the actual vehicle in the spring. The program staffs one nurse practitioner, two nurses, one social worker, two community health workers and one driver, and is providing pop-up services. These include preventive screenings, preventive and routine/diagnostic care, health education, and addressing social determinants of health.

The Department of Health and Human Services is also releasing $100,000 worth of community grants for community based organizations aimed at reducing fentanyl use overdose and death.

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“The focus population will be for organizations targeting people who use drugs or are at risk for using fentanyl. Community organizations can apply for up to $25,000 to be used over 12 months, and this will be part of the county’s community grant program,” David said.

The department is also working to reach more underrepresented groups in the county by specifically identifying and addressing subgroups through its three year community health needs assessment, including residents of the agricultural reserve, LGBTQ+ residents, disabled residents, refugees, youth and older adults. In the assessment, 1,374 residents were surveyed, and another 842 residents participated in an LGBTQ+ specific survey. The department is taking the data collected from the survey to work on setting forth priorities.

Currently, the department is working to connect county departments to address key themes identified in the surveys as high-need areas.

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“Mental health and access to behavioral health continues to be on the minds and experiences of our residents,” said Dr. Christopher Rogers, acting chief of Public Health Services for DHHS, “We heard clearly from the community that they valued and they need culturally and language competent services.”