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Pennsylvania orders vaccine providers to speed up the shots

MICHAEL RUBINKAM
The Associated Press
Walgreens pharmacist Connie Fogg gives a COVID-19 vaccine to Evaristo Maldonado during an inoculation clinic for more than 800, including over 400 with intellectual and developmental disabilities, at Seguin Services on Feb. 4, 2021, in Cicero, Illinois. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

After weeks of complaints about Pennsylvania’s halting COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the Health Department on Friday ordered providers to get shots into arms more quickly, offer more convenient scheduling and make sure that scarce supplies are only going to eligible recipients.

The state also plans to dramatically cut the number of providers that are administering the vaccine so that more doses will go to those that have proven adept at swiftly using their weekly allotments.

Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said the moves are intended to hold hospitals, pharmacies and other providers accountable for the vaccine doses they’ve been entrusted with, and to address widespread frustrations among Pennsylvania residents about how difficult it can be to secure an appointment. Pennsylvania is among the lowest-ranked states in how efficiently it is vaccinating its population.

“I want Pennsylvanians to know that we have heard you and we are taking bold, decisive action,” Beam said at a media briefing.

Under the order, hospitals, pharmacies and other providers must administer at least 80% of their allotment of first doses of vaccine within a week of getting them, and offer live telephone operators to assist people who don’t have the ability to schedule their appointments online.

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Providers must also adhere to the state’s phased rollout, which currently limits the vaccine to health providers, nursing home residents, people age 65 and older and younger people with serious medical conditions. In practice, however, federal health privacy laws limit the ability of any vaccine provider to confirm eligibility — meaning recipients are on the honor system.

Beam said providers who fail to abide by the order will have their weekly allocations reduced or suspended.

The Wolf administration has been pummeled by Republicans, Democrats, health providers and interest groups alike over the sluggish pace of vaccinations and the state’s confusing, patchwork system for signups. Pennsylvania consistently ranks poorly among the states in the number of shots given per 100,000 people, and in the percentage of allocated vaccine doses that have been administered.

“To say the COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan has been abysmal is a severe understatement,” Rep. Valerie Gaydos, R-Allegheny, wrote Friday ahead of the Health Department announcement.

Health officials say the state’s mediocre showing partly reflects a decision to hold second doses in reserve, but Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf himself has said repeatedly that the state needs to do a better job of getting shots into arms.

Statewide, about 780 health providers have received vaccine shipments. The Health Department said it will begin limiting deliveries to between 200 and 300 providers — hospitals, federally funded health centers, municipal health departments and pharmacies — that have been most effective at rapidly administering the shots.

“With the limited number of vaccines ... we need to make sure that we focus in on the providers that are able to reach the communities quickly,” Beam said.

Lack of supply remains the major problem facing Pennsylvania and every other state. Of the more than 4 million people currently eligible in the state, a little more than a quarter, about 1.2 million people, have received at least one dose. Apart from Philadelphia, which gets its vaccine directly from the federal government, Pennsylvania received about 175,000 first doses this week.

Providers, meanwhile, have been swamped with requests.

The Allentown Health Bureau said Friday that its vaccine scheduling call center system is getting an “overwhelming number” of calls, with busy signals confronting residents trying to get through.

“We understand the challenges this creates, and we thank you for your patience as we work to improve our service and manage the thousands of requests from our community,” the city said in a statement.

In Allegheny County, a recent vaccine registration hotline received 15,000 calls per second — for 750 appointments.