York County official: Gov't is undermining vaccine rollout

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch
Nurse Coralie Ferron prepares a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Le Cannet, southern France, Thursday Jan. 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

A lack of coordination among federal, state and local governments is hampering distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, the top medical official in York County said Friday.

Dr. Matt Howie's comments come as President Joe Biden's freshly installed administration is overhauling the federal response. Howie, chief health strategist for York County, said the federal government's lack of a coordinated plan to get the available vaccine doses into the hands of the states is hamstringing local providers who are otherwise ready to provide mass immunization.

"Without some sort of assurance that the vaccine is going to be there, you’re setting up expectations that can’t be met," he said.

About 3.5 million Pennsylvanians are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine under the state's guidelines, but state officials said the federal government is only sending about 140,000 doses per week.

More:Pennsylvania hospitals: Not enough vaccine to go around

More:Pennsylvania expands vaccine eligibility to 65 and older

More:‘It’s chaos’: Expanded vaccine rollout spawns new woes

As of Friday, nearly 38 million doses of the vaccine had been distributed nationally to state and local governments, but only 17.5 million doses had been administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state Department of Health doesn't have its own vaccine stockpile, said Barry Ciccocioppo, the state's COVID-19 spokesperson, in an email Thursday.

Pharmacist Manager Dianne Steimling, left, hands off a package to UPS delivery driver Tim Garman at Kennie's Marketplace pharmacy in Spring Grove, Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. The pharmacy is included in the state's listing of COVID-19 vaccine distribution sites. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Instead, Pennsylvania has been requesting the maximum allotment from the federal government and the vaccine manufacturers, which are then sent directly to the local pharmacies and health care providers.

Providers have to pull resources from other parts of their operations to run vaccination programs, Howie said, and many are hesitant to commit to reorganizing their staff and other assets if there's no guarantee they'll even have vaccine doses to offer.

If York County had its own health department, Howie said, the communication between departments and agencies would likely be running more smoothly and efficiently, but the root of the problem would remain, he said.

The York County Board of Commissioners is expecting the results soon of a feasibility study the county commissioned last year to help determine whether to create a countywide health department.

The commissioners have said no decision has been made and they're waiting for the results of the study. It was the COVID-19 pandemic that prompted the board to start investigating the proposal in 2020.

Meanwhile, York County residents have been clamoring to get their hands on a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Pharmacies at Kennie's Markets, a regional grocery store chain with a location in Spring Grove, have been inundated with so many phone calls about the vaccine that regular customers are having trouble getting through to fill their prescriptions, said lead pharmacist Adam Boyde.

"We love the enthusiasm, we invite the phone calls, we love hearing from the patients," he said, "but I still think a little bit of patience is necessary."

WellSpan York Hospital staff on Thursday morning received the hospital's first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines.

Kennie's Markets haven't received any doses of the vaccine yet, Boyde said, and their pharmacies are only equipped to store the Moderna vaccine, which doesn't require the same refrigeration as the Pfizer vaccine, he said.

Both vaccines require two doses to be effective.

Boyde said the pharmacies must fill out a weekly order form with the state to request a number of vaccine doses, and the order form also helps the state to gauge where demand is greatest.

Kennie's Markets has requested about 200 doses of the vaccine, Boyde said.

State officials are asking the public to be patient, Ciccocioppo said.

"There will be enough vaccine for everyone who wants it, but it will take months, not weeks, for manufacturers to catch up to demand," he said.

Pennsylvania is in Phase 1A of the state Department of Health's vaccine distribution plan.

Eligible recipients under Phase 1A include workers in the health care industry, those who may come into contact with patients at health care facilities, all people ages 65 and older and people ages 16-64 who have high-risk conditions such as cancer, diabetes or obesity.

At WellSpan Health, which has been working with the state to vaccinate eligible people, there's been a run on the vaccine.

WellSpan has 21 vaccination sites across southeastern Pennsylvania where eligible members of the public can make an appointment for an injection, spokesperson Ryan Coyle said.

On Tuesday, WellSpan announced it had administered more than 20,000 doses of the vaccine.

Tuesday is also when the state expanded Phase 1A eligibility to all people ages 65 and older, and within two days, there were 45,000 more vaccination appointments booked through the online reservation system, Coyle said.

As of Friday, WellSpan had no upcoming appointments available for vaccination, and future appointment availability will depend on getting more shipments of the vaccine.

Visitors to the website are encouraged to create a MyWellSpan online account so they can schedule their appointment once more vaccine doses are available.

Another major distributor of the vaccine is Weis Markets, which started accepting appointments for immunizations Thursday in 55 pharmacies across the state, two of which are in York County.

Weis also is using an online registration system, but by Friday morning, the link to sign up for an appointment at one of the Pennsylvania locations redirected to a landing page stating that all appointments were booked and telling visitors to check back the following day.

All future immunizations at Weis Markets will be held Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, said Dennis Curtin, company spokesperson.

Curtin said there's been significant demand for immunization and that he expects the demand to grow in the coming weeks.

"Right now, there is a limited supply," he said.

Weis will receive a greater number of vaccine doses in its next shipment, Curtin said, but he declined to provide specific numbers.

As of Friday, 11,200 people in York County had been partially vaccinated and 2,618 people had been fully vaccinated. Statewide, 387,929 people had been partially vaccinated and 98,881 had been fully vaccinated.

In Phase 1B, eligible recipients will expand to include corrections officers, first responders, people who work and live in congregate care settings and employees in education, agriculture, manufacturing, grocery stores, places of worship, child and adult day care centers, the U.S. Postal Service and public transit.

Phase 1C will include those deemed essential workers in government, public safety, public health, transportation, water and wastewater, food service, housing construction, information technology, communications, finance and banking, legal services, energy and media.

Phase 2 will cover the general population ages 16 and older who aren't at risk for complications due to allergies or other contraindications. 

As of noon Saturday, there had been 600 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in York County since the pandemic began, and a total of 29,812 positive cases, the state Department of Health reported.