A healthy 41-year-old man recently “waltzed” into a Pennsylvania pharmacy and received a vaccination, essentially cutting the line in front of higher-risk people.
That story came from an irritated state Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery and Bucks, during a hearing today on Pennsylvania’s vaccination plan. The healthy vaccine recipient is the symptom of a fragile rollout strategy that leaders of government, healthcare, pharmacies and long-term care facilities poked holes at for nearly four hours today, Feb. 4.
Collett didn’t hide her frustration with other logistical weaknesses in the state’s vaccine rollout, asking pointed questions of acting interim Secretary of Health Alison Beam during the state Senate hearing.
“There are an incredible amount of frustrations here,” Collett told Beam, asking: “What is the plan moving forward to do better? How are you spending time to ramp up and improve the logistics across this commonwealth?”
Beam, who is two weeks into her job, admitted to some of the problems.
“Distribution is a Herculean effort,” she said.
Some pharmacies and health care facilities are hoarding vaccines in order to have second doses on hand when needed, despite the state’s assurance that it’s not necessary, she said; the second vaccines will be provided from the Department of Health.
Beam spoke from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, which is working closely with DOH to create mass vaccination sites throughout the state in the coming months. Senators and health leaders agreed that community sites would be the best strategy for improving vaccination rates.
Collett, among others, wanted to hear how Beam was repairing the many issues that have landed Pennsylvania near the bottom of a list of state-vaccination rates.
In response, Beam said her staff was calling immunization facilities when it was clear they were holding vaccines, and her team is working closely with PEMA to improve the efficiency of the rollout.
During testimony, executives from senior care facilities begged for their residents to be prioritized, even before others in the 1A category, because so many deaths in those facilities have been associated with the coronavirus. In addition, their residents have been separated from family members for months because of the pandemic.
In a wide-ranging interrogation of health leaders and pharmaceutical companies, state senators looked for answers on questions their constituents are asking:
- Why are the delivery of vaccinations taking so long?
- How are some at-risk illnesses prioritized above others?
- Why haven’t all of the nursing home facility personnel and patients been vaccinated already?
- Why are smokers higher on the list for receiving a vaccination than others with serious illnesses?
Beam said the state is delivering vaccines as quickly as they are received, but there’s work to be done on getting those vaccinations into arms quickly and efficiently at pharmacies and healthcare facilities. The DOH is “rewarding” facilities that efficiently deliver their vaccines by providing them with more doses than others.
Chris Altman, Rite-Aid manager for clinical services, said during the hearing that it takes about a week between the time vaccines are received in his pharmacies until all of those shots are administered to patients.
“Waiting a week to get vaccinations into arms is too long,” said state Sen. Art Haywood, D-Montgomery and Philadelphia.
More:Mass vaccination sites being planned by PEMA across Pennsylvania in February
More:Where can I get a COVID-19 vaccination in Pennsylvania?
Other legislators questioned which counties were getting the highest number of shots. The Department of Health decides how many vaccines each county will receive based on four factors, Beam said:
- County population
- Population of the county’s residents who are 65 years old and older
- Number of COVID-19 cases
- Number of COVID-19 deaths
The prioritization of who belongs in the 1A group also came into question. The state Department of Health is following CDC guidelines, but a few of the senators questioned it.
“There’s confusion over why Pennsylvania would prioritize young adult smokers over others in the high-risk group,” Brooks said.
Smokers are disproportionately found in lower socioeconomic communities, where the virus has affected higher numbers of people, Beam said. The risk of hospitalization with that group is also high, so reaching smokers can make hospital admissions manageable.
For long-term nursing facilities, the federal government has partnered with specific pharmacies to administer the vaccines on site. Beam said the state takes its lead from pharmacies, which request the number of vaccines it needs each week. Those deliveries are the state’s highest priority, she said.
Also in the 1A group are people who are 65 or older and those 16 to 64 with one of these underlying conditions, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health:
- Chronic kidney disease
- Down Syndrome
- Heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies
- Immunocompromised state (weakened immune system) from solid organ transplant or from blood or bone marrow transplant, immune deficiencies, HIV, use of corticosteroids, or use of other immune weakening medicines
- Obesity or severe obesity
- Sickle cell disease
- Type 2 diabetes mellitus
Concluding the session, Brooks said: “Pennsylvania’s vaccine rollout program has room to improve.”
Kim Strong can be reached at [email protected]