EASTON — The University of Maryland Medical System, which comprises 13 hospitals across the state including the Mid-Shore, will likely make COVID-19 vaccination optional among hospitals staff when a vaccine becomes available, according to the Shore Regional Health chief medical officer.

Dr. William Huffner, SRH vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer, said in an interview Thursday that at this point he believes the COVID-19 vaccine will not be mandatory for employees within the hospitals, despite their often heightened risk of contracting and spreading the virus.

Huffner did not say why there might not be a vaccination mandate for UMMS staff, but he suggested that if the vaccine is not mandated, the hospital system will nonetheless encourage its workforce to get vaccinated. The vaccine, he said, is “one of the most important things” in the fight against the pandemic.

“When a vaccination becomes available, we need to make sure that we all get vaccinated to bring this pandemic to a close,” he said, adding, “When we lose a health care worker to the disease, not only do we risk spreading the disease to a community member, but we take someone out of the pool of team members we need to care for those who are sick.”

Huffner said he didn’t know how many hospital staffers across UMMS have contracted COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March, though he said the hospital system does track that number. SRH Spokesperson Trena Williamson did not provide the number to The Star Democrat by press time Thursday.

While Huffner acknowledged there are health care workers across Maryland who have died after contracting the virus, he said he’s not aware of any hospital staff member at the Shore’s three hospitals — Easton, Cambridge and Chestertown — who has died from COVID-19, the disease the coronavirus causes. He did not have the number of those who have died across all UMMS hospitals.

When the anticipated COVID-19 vaccine is green-lighted, available and ready for distribution, health care workers, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advisory group recommendation, will be slated among the first to receive it.

The CDC wrote on its website that getting healthcare personnel early access to the vaccine is “critical to ensuring the health and safety of this essential workforce of approximately 21 million people,” in order to protect “not only them but also their patients, communities, and the broader health of our country.”

Huffner echoed that notion and said that while the vaccine has not yet been approved for use and distribution, UMMS is already preparing its tiered approach to handling the vaccine — in terms of how much of it will be distributed, where it will go and who will be first in line for vaccination.

“How that will all process is being actively worked on, and will be done consistent with the CDC and our state mandates about how to distribute the vaccine as it is made available,” he said. Huffner did not know how many doses of the vaccine might be needed for the hospital system to vaccinate all of its frontline workers who wish to be vaccinated.

Across Shore Regional hospitals, there are roughly 1,050 medically trained staff, some or all of whom could be among the first on Maryland’s distribution list for early doses of the vaccine, especially considering staffing shortages and the hospital system’s need to retain their staff and keep them healthy.

As of Thursday, Williamson said there are nine COVID-19 infected patients hospitalized among the Easton, Chestertown and Cambridge regional hospitals. That number is up from three one week ago on Nov. 25.

The Mid-Shore — Talbot, Queen Anne’s, Dorchester, Caroline and Kent counties — reported a total of just under 4,500 confirmed coronavirus infections to date on Thursday, according to state health data. Talbot County residents have accounted for 844 of those cases, and is reporting 70 active infections.

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