Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. David Damsker, director of the Bucks County Health Department, has offered guidance that varied from the state and CDC. From his “modified quarantine” model to the recent suggestion that school athletes shouldn’t wear masks on the field, his recommendations have always been more lax.
Now, with vaccine distribution underway, Bucks County residents continue to receive differing instructions from their local health director and state officials.
Recently, Damsker and Bucks County Commissioner vice chair Bob Harvie participated in a public call moderated by AARP. Those with concerns about the vaccine were invited to ask questions directly of the two.
Regarding the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, it’s been widely argued that the second shot must be received within 21-28 days after the first. With limited supply, the CDC expanded that time frame to 42 days.
According to Damsker, it’s OK if it takes even longer.
One caller shared that he’s living in Florida for the winter and has the opportunity to get the first dose. However, he’ll be returning to Bucks County before he can get the second shot, and was concerned about being able to do so in his hometown. As it stands now in Pennsylvania, Damsker said this wouldn’t be possible. Second-dose recipients are supposed to return to the same place where they received the first because of limited supply.
Damsker urged the man to still get the first dose, which he said will provide a good amount of protection, and pursue the second shot when it’s available.
“There are a lot of experts out there who believe waiting longer for your second dose will actually provide a more robust immune response and protect you longer than doing it too soon,” Damsker said.
Several callers, including a 73-year-old grocery store worker, expressed frustration over being part of the 1A group, but seeing non-1A neighbors get vaccinated before them. Damsker directed her to sign up on the online vaccination portal if she hadn’t done so already. There are about 150,000 registrants.
Those without internet access can call the Bucks County Health Department directly at 215-345-3318.
“We’re slowly working our way through that list in the order with which you signed up,” he said, adding that he’s unsure how people outside of 1A are getting approved. “It’s a shame that people are jumping the line.”
When asked what the county is doing to vaccinate homebound individuals, Harvie said “strike teams” will soon be visiting homes and apartment complexes. The county will also call on its Area Agency on Aging and social services to conduct outreach.
Harvie touched on how the highly-populated Philadelphia suburbs, including Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties, are fighting for the state to change its distribution metrics. Local legislators are calling on the state Department of Health to base it on population.
“Early on, when the state was giving out vaccines for healthcare workers, counties that had big hospital systems ended up getting a lot of doses,” Harvie said, adding that Lehigh and Northampton counties received a large amount of vaccine because they have twice the number of healthcare workers, yet smaller populations. “It certainly has been frustrating for us.”
Additionally, when a caller expressed annoyance that non-Bucks Countians are getting vaccinated in the county, Damsker said clinics and providers aren’t allowed to exclude based on residency. It’s a mandate from the state. Since Bucks County residents are also getting vaccinated elsewhere, he said it evens out.
He pleaded with people to remain patient and, when available, to take advantage of whatever vaccine is offered.
“All three vaccines are safe. All three vaccines prevent death and hospitalization. Even if they don’t prevent every single case of COVID, it’s OK. You end up with a runny nose and headache. That’s not scary. What’s scary is the people with serious illness on ventilators in the hospital,” said Damsker. “That’s what we’re trying to prevent, and this vaccine is doing a very good job so far.”
To date, 43,460 Bucks Countians have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 44,311 are fully vaccinated. Visit surveymonkey.com/r/CoBWaitList to pre-register for the vaccine. Clinics are open at the three Bucks County Community College campuses, with sites at the former Neshaminy Mall H&M and St. Luke’s Quakertown slated to open March 16.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org