Blame game begins over Pennsylvania’s slow vaccine rollout
HARRISBURG — Republicans are faulting the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf for Pennsylvania’s slow COVID-19 vaccine rollout even as Wolf himself says insufficient supply is the real culprit, setting up a fresh political fight over who’s to blame for the frustrations of eligible residents trying to get inoculated.
GOP leaders in the House and Senate chided Wolf for the fact that Pennsylvania ranks second-to-last among the states in vaccine administration. The state has managed to get less than half of its federal allocation of doses into people’s arms, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
State health officials say about 720,000 Pennsylvania residents have received at least one shot through Thursday, a fraction of the more than 4 million who are currently eligible.
“The statewide rollout of this vaccine is fraught with inconsistencies, fraud, and a lack of transparency,” said Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, adding the slow rollout “will prolong any attempts to kick start an already devastated Pennsylvania economy.”
Wolf, for his part, has said the Trump administration overpromised on vaccines, hampering the ability of Pennsylvania to swiftly inoculate millions of people.
In the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency, when Pennsylvania followed CDC guidance by expanding eligibility to people 65 and older and those with serious health conditions, it did so with the expectation that it would receive a big increase in its weekly vaccine allotment.
That didn’t happen.
“The biggest challenge we face is we’re not receiving enough doses of vaccine to meet the needs of Pennsylvania,” Wolf said, adding that “it’s been frustrating, and it’s disappointing because we’ve all relied on the federal government to make sure that we have the vaccines.”
President Joe Biden, who took office last week, has promised to ramp up deliveries to the states. Pennsylvania expects to get 160,000 doses next week, up from 140,000 doses in prior weeks, according to the state Health Department. But that is still far short of the 705,000 doses requested by vaccine providers.
Bill Johnston-Walsh, director of the AARP in Pennsylvania, said his office has received calls from members who are confused and frustrated over their inability to get through to a provider and then to get an appointment.
One of his members, a Pittsburgh-area resident, reported making 10 or 15 calls to land an appointment for her elderly husband — in Erie, a couple hours away.
AARP wants the Wolf administration to set up a toll-free number that would allow older residents to be connected to a vaccine provider. Right now, Pennsylvania relies on a scattershot distribution system involving hospitals, doctor’s offices, pharmacy chains, municipal health departments and even grocery stores.
“What we’re asking for is a live person on the phone to answer their questions or help them navigate through the system, instead of what you’re doing now, which is going through one pharmacy or community health center to another,” Johnston-Walsh said.
As a political matter, the criticism of Wolf’s vaccine rollout is something of a shift for the GOP.
The Republicans, who hold the majority in both legislative chambers, have spent nearly a year attacking Wolf’s efforts to defeat the coronavirus. They’ve fought his pandemic measures in court, saying he overreached by shuttering businesses, ordering people to stay at home and placing size limits on gatherings. They are pushing a constitutional amendment that would limit Wolf’s emergency powers. Some of them refuse to wear a mask in public.
On vaccines, though, the Republicans have pivoted to saying Wolf is not doing enough. The state House Health Committee has scheduled a hearing Monday to probe the state’s vaccine rollout.
“The confusing and short-sighted guidance from the administration has caused significant public angst,” said House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre.
Dr. Mark Roberts, the director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health’s Public Health Dynamics Lab, said it is difficult to blame the state, given the federal government’s primacy in vaccine distribution.
The criticism isn’t limited to Wolf’s Republican antagonists. Last week, Democratic Sen. Lindsey Williams said the state’s vaccine distribution system needs more transparency and clarity. Johnston-Walsh, the AARP director, wrote to Wolf last week that “Pennsylvania has a logistics problem,” which he said is “simply unacceptable to AARP and should be to all Pennsylvanians.”
The state Health Department says CDC statistics don’t tell the whole story. Even though doses may be listed as “allocated,” it can take several days for them to arrive. Vaccine providers take one to three days to report that they have administered the shots. Also, Pennsylvania is holding back second doses, whereas other states are pushing them all out at once.
But Wolf, speaking to reporters this week, acknowledged the work ahead.
“We want to do a much better job than we’re doing, and we’ll continue to improve this process,” he said.