Bucks County is (again) flattening the curve of COVID-19 infections. For the first time since mid-November, the seven-day average of new cases has been just below 200 each week in February.
Despite this positive news, tensions continue to rise as vaccine distribution lags. Currently, 200,000 residents and counting have pre-registered to receive either the Pfizer or Moderna option, and are not-so-patiently waiting for it to be their turn.
The Bucks County Commissioners recently held a virtual news conference to address the public’s growing anxiety. Diane Ellis-Marseglia, Bob Harvie and Gene DiGirolamo were in agreement that lack of vaccines isn’t a problem that’s exclusive to Bucks County.
“We are doing everything we can. It’s bipartisan. We have met with Republican and Democratic state representatives. We have talked to the congressman. Everybody is actually working really hard together, but we can’t get vials of vaccine that haven’t been made yet,” said Marseglia.
According to Dr. David Damsker, director of the Bucks County Health Department, the county has been receiving weekly allotments of at least 6,000 doses, which is far less than what’s requested. Damsker said he doesn’t expect a significant increase from the state until sometime next month.
“We can only give the number of vaccines that we have. We’re giving out as much as we can give out. If we get 3,000 doses one week, we’re giving out that many doses in our clinics,” he said. “We’re going as fast as we can. If I could make more vaccine magically appear, that’s really what’s going to solve the problem.”
Each Bucks County Community College campus is serving as a mass vaccination site. Audrey Kenny, interim Emergency Management Services director, said the county is pulling eligible recipients from the pre-registration list (online and phone submissions) and scheduling appointments Tuesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. These locations are not open to walk-ins. Pennsylvania remains in Phase 1A, which includes residents 65 and older, healthcare workers and those with certain health conditions.
When The Times went to print, almost 70,000 vaccine doses had been administered in Bucks. This is 4.4 percent of Pennsylvania’s population.
Marseglia said 86 percent of vaccines received by the county go to local hospitals, and the remaining 14 percent to the health department. She stressed that the commissioners have no say in how hospitals and clinics prioritize the 1A population. It’s also difficult to monitor if individuals in 1B are sneaking through the cracks.
“We wish we did. We would be very happy if we did and we have tried, but we have no say,” Marseglia said.
DiGirolamo urged residents to be proactive in their mission to get vaccinated.
“Contact your local hospital. See if they have a registration set up on their website. Call your local pharmacies in the area, see if they’re going to be receiving any vaccine,” he said. “Also check with your primary care doctor and see if they’re affiliated with a hospital. They might be able to help you sign up.”
Counties nationwide are at the mercy of the manufacturers. The commissioners and Damsker hope that when the one-shot Johnson & Johnson option is available, more people can get vaccinated in a shorter period of time.
“This is the largest vaccination program in human history, complicated by the issues of double doses, the 15-minute wait time. And you can’t just store this in a regular freezer, at least the Pfizer,” said Harvie. “There are a number of complicating factors that make this incredibly difficult.”
Still, they’re confident that the situation will improve sooner or later.
“If you think of the hand sanitizer issues we were having last April, it’s the same thing. You couldn’t find any, and people were getting desperate. Now it’s on store shelves and they can’t get rid of it,” said Marseglia. “That’s exactly how this is going to go with the vaccine.”
Damsker added that no vaccine is 100 percent effective. Rather, its purpose is to prevent serious illness and death if one is infected by the virus.
“We shouldn’t worry about a few cases getting through the vaccine,” he said.
In other COVID-related news, Damsker addressed fear surrounding the concerning number of virus mutations. There’s at least one known case of the U.K. variant in Bucks County. He asked people to not panic and to treat these variants how they would the original virus by masking and social distancing.
“When you have one case of anything, you have multiple, and that’s really important to remember about not just COVID, but any disease,” he said. “We may not know the actual number of the variants because a lot of people are not going to get tested or don’t feed bad enough to get tested.”
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Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org