According to the CDC, Pennsylvania is ranked 44th in COVID-19 vaccine distribution.
And Pennsylvanians are not pleased.
Since the Pfizer and Moderna options began making their way across the state, there have been reports of healthcare facilities receiving hundreds fewer doses than ordered and unexpected shipments arriving on doorsteps. Additionally, after Gov. Tom Wolf expanded Phase 1A to include all persons 65 and older, as well as those 16-64 with serious medical conditions, there’s simply not enough vaccine to accommodate everyone who’s eligible.
In order to examine this lag in distribution, the state House Health Committee, chaired by Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Warren/Crawford/Forest), convened a public hearing that was live streamed from Harrisburg on Feb. 3.
A guest speaker was Susan Friedberg Kalson, CEO of Squirrel Hill Health Center, an independent nonprofit in Pittsburgh that predominantly treats underserved residents, including low-income, homeless and immigrants. She was extremely candid about Squirrel’s experience vaccinating patients, many of whom are high-risk.
“We do not know what we are getting until the night before. Sometimes we have gotten shipments with no notification. It’s varied from a week when we requested 600 doses and we got nothing and we had to start our second doses that week, so we were able to get hold of the health department and they shipped us 200 doses, to just unexpected shipments of 300, 400 doses,” she said. “When we don’t know what’s happening and when it’s happening, it’s very hard for us to communicate with our community.”
Friedberg Kalson stressed that transparency between all levels of government needs to be heightened. She said there’s too much uncertainty. Not knowing what’s coming causes health facilities to over- or under-book vaccination appointments, and residents to feel anxious about when (and if) they will receive the vaccine.
“Everything that happens at a federal level and then at a state level eventually ends up on our doorstep,” said Friedberg Kalson. “Personally, I think if people know they’re in a line to get it, they will calm down. It’s feeling as though they have to try to register every place they hear. Many people register at multiple locations, adding the problem of no-shows and the potential waste. There’s a general atmosphere of competition. The fittest and most technologically-adept, who aren’t the people we’re charged with serving first, get the prize.”
Also present was state Department of Health Acting Secretary Alison Beam, who told the committee she’s aware that there’s more requests for vaccine than the number available from the federal government.
When asked her thoughts on Friedberg Kalson’s testimony about unfulfilled vaccine requests, she said, “We really have a lot of hand-to-hand communication. We are directly in contact. This is something that takes our team a lot of time and investment in making sure our providers understand what they requested is maybe different than what they’re going to be allocated and when it’s going to be coming.”
Beam added that distribution is based on four factors, including county population, county population that’s 65 and older, total COVID cases to date and total COVID deaths to date. Providers are able to put in weekly request amounts.
“Our team then digests that, uses all the factors we just discussed and understands better how to allocate across all of those providers reflective of their requested amount,” said Beam, who said she’ll “look into” why some are receiving unplanned shipments.
State House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre/Mifflin) asked Beam what her department is doing to stop facilities from hoarding first doses out of fear that second ones won’t be available.
“There are providers that we know are stockpiling one vaccine in the freezer for every one that they put into an arm,” she said. “We’re trying to let them know that second doses in Pennsylvania are secure. We’re reaching out to providers that we suspect are sitting on inventory. If folks are sitting on inventory, it’s doing none of us any good right now.”
In Bucks County, when The Times went to print, 27,937 people were partially vaccinated (sixth-highest county total in the state) and 8,996 were fully vaccinated with two shots (fifth-highest). As Pennsylvania remains in Phase 1A, which includes healthcare providers, long-term care residents and staff, EMS workers, anyone age 16 and over with a serious medical condition and all adults age 65 and over, more than 200,000 residents are pre-registered to be vaccinated in Phase 1B.
Several Bucks representatives weighed in on the vaccine distribution issue, and commended the House Health Committee for its work on addressing it.
“This is a critical first step into understanding why Pennsylvania is lagging the nation in getting the COVID-19 vaccines into the arms of Pennsylvanians who desperately want protection from this deadly virus,” said Rep. Wendi Thomas (R-Richboro).
“This hearing will tell us where the weaknesses are in the state distribution system and hopefully provide a path toward moving forward,” said Frank Farriy (R-Langhorne).
“This is what our constituents have been demanding,” said Rep. KC Tomlinson (R-Bensalem). “They want to know why it is taking so long, not just to get the vaccine, but for the state health department to unveil a plan and a timetable.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com