Pennsylvania officials discourage vaccine tourism as distribution lags

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Pennsylvania health officials said Tuesday reports of residents seeking out the COVID-19 vaccine across state lines remain unsurprising as its own distribution plan lags federal targets.

“It feels like we have to rise to the challenge,” acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said during her first news conference since replacing Dr. Rachel Levine, who left the post to serve in the Biden administration.

More than 700,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered across the state since mid-December, Beam said, but limited supply and high demand make efforts to speed up the process difficult, at best.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this month that Americans 65 and older or those with chronic health conditions should move to the head of the line, further complicating efforts for the state. The guidance widened the pool to 3.5 million residents, but the weekly supply in Pennsylvania of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is about 140,000 doses.

A New York Times analysis ranks Pennsylvania’s distribution efforts in the middle of the pack compared to other states, with just under 50 percent of its 1.6 million doses administered as of Tuesday.

“We know that Pennsylvanians are ready for the vaccine,” Beam said. “We ask for patience as the amount of the vaccine in Pennsylvania and the nation is limited. We want to ensure that the vaccine is provided in a way that is ethical, equitable and efficient, which is why we are taking a phased approach. This way we can make sure the most vulnerable residents can get vaccinated now.”

Gov. Tom Wolf said hope remains with a new presidential administration that supply may catch up to the overwhelming demand. He and Beam said they appreciated the Biden administration’s early communications with states to better understand the challenges they face, though it remains unclear how the nation will meet the president’s goal of vaccinating 150 million people in 100 days.

“We don’t have 8 million doses yet,” Wolf said. “Even if we were getting the injections immediately, we would be far short of the demand that’s out there.”

“We want to do a much better job than we are doing,” he continued. “We have far less supply than we hoped we would have at this point, and there are more people who are really in line to get the vaccine. Those two things lead to shortages.”

The administration also responded to complaints from educators, corrections officers and other essential workers angered by the decision to prioritize smokers over other professionals in the distribution plan.

“Our underlying mission this entire time has been to save lives and as part of that … we had to be able to make sure those most at risk were prioritized,” Beam said. “That being said, we know our firefighters and our teachers and our corrections officers have been dedicated public servants who are front line workers in their own right.”

“The state does not have to follow CDC guidelines, but we are trying to recognize people who are vulnerable to COVID, and it turns out smokers are,” Wolf said. “The CDC is not making a value judgment there.”

Beam said advocating the federal government for more doses will be a top priority for the Department of Health. As to whether the state will follow others in establishing a central registration system for residents to access for locating and scheduling vaccinations, she was unsure.

“This is a question that we have been wrestling with,” she said. “But our underpinning principle in making sure that the vaccine is getting significant uptake in Pennsylvania is having a localized effort.”

The comments echo the administration’s approach to COVID-19 management across most of its departments, where the state defers to local officials and health care facilities on how best to manage the pandemic in each region. Beam said the department preferred if residents work directly with their primary care clinicians, hospitals and pharmacies, who already operate scheduling systems capable of managing the influx of vaccination demand.

“We have not at all abdicated our responsibility in making sure folks have the adequate information about where they can go get vaccinated,” Beam said.

But the governor did not rule out a centralized registration system in the future.

“We recognize we need to do a better job…,” Wolf said. “If [centralized] registration is something that might get us there, we might certainly consider it.”

Jason Gottesman, spokesperson for the House Republican Caucus, tweeted that the administration’s pleas were “shameful.”

“For months, @GovernorTomWolf said a vaccine was necessary to get rid of his ridiculous restrictions and return to normal,” he said. “We now have a vaccine and his administration is asking for ‘patience’ while they bungle the deployment. Shameful.”

Democrats in the General Assembly, too, took to the social media platform to air their grievances with the state’s immunization rollout.

“Pennsylvania needs a clear and effective vaccine distribution plan, communicated to its residents asap,” said Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Pittsburgh.

Rep. Jessica Benham, D-Carrick, Sen. Lyndsey Williams, D-Pittsburgh and Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Pittsburgh, seconded Fontana’s sentiments, calling for “improvements in communication and organization of vaccine distribution.”

“There is a dire need for Pennsylvanians to be able ‘sign up’ to be notified of when they are eligible to receive a vaccine and where they can receive it,” Williams said Friday, noting that residents in Philadelphia can do just that and receive a phone call when its time to get their shot. “We need that sort of notification for all Pennsylvanians. Nearly a million Pennsylvanians have already downloaded the COVID Alert PA app to their phones – this would be a good opportunity to use this existing app to allow individuals to sign up for the vaccine.”

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