OP-ED: Disaster declaration allows Pennsylvanians to receive much-needed care during pandemic

Kalonji Johnson
Pennsylvania Department of State
Volunteer Norma Shue, 87, prepares Barb Deller of Springettsbury Township, left, for her vaccination at the WellSpan Community COVID-19 Vaccination Site in the former A.C. Moore location on Loucks Road in York City Sunday, April 18, 2021. Norma, a volunteer at numerous organizations around York County, has volunteered at WellSpan for 17 years after retiring from the healthcare network. She was honored with a bouquet of flowers Sunday – the first day of National Volunteer Appreciation Week – from a former vaccination patient. Bill Kalina photo

Our mission at the Department of State is to protect the health and safety of Pennsylvanians through professional licensure. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it was clear that we needed to act quickly to carry out our mission and ensure that Pennsylvanians continued to receive the health care and services they needed during a constantly evolving global crisis.

The emergency disaster declaration has allowed us and those we license — including nearly 500,000 health care professionals — to continue serving commonwealth citizens through various temporary regulation waivers. The purpose of these waivers has been to reduce administrative barriers that would have otherwise stood in the way of responding to the pandemic.

Since March 2020, the Pennsylvania Department of State has received approval for nearly 100 waivers of licensing regulations under the governor’s COVID-19 Emergency Disaster Declaration. Focused on essential public health and safety needs and licensing requirements, the department’s staff has worked with board members and other stakeholders throughout the commonwealth to identify the waivers that would quickly and safely free up every available healthcare professional who wanted to assist in any way, including retirees, military and out-of-state practitioners.

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Many of the waivers are specific to licensees, and while Pennsylvanians may not know about all of them, they are undoubtedly directly or indirectly benefitting from them. For example, the department extended multiple licensing renewal deadlines so that practitioners such as doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other professionals could focus on treating patients during the pandemic.

In addition, there are two types of waivers that have directly touched the lives of nearly every Pennsylvanian: a waiver that allows telemedicine, and more than a dozen waivers that allow more healthcare professionals to administer COVID-19 vaccines.

If you have had a virtual visit with your doctor over the past year without having to leave home, you have benefited from the telemedicine waiver. In the early days of the pandemic, telemedicine was especially critical as cases were rising and measures such as social distancing were just being implemented.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41% of adults in the U.S. avoided medical care due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Telemedicine is an option for patients to keep up with routine care while consulting their doctor from home.

As the pandemic has evolved, the Department of State has kept up with the changing needs of licensed professionals and the public. Since December 2020, the department began issuing waivers related to COVID-19 vaccines. These waivers expanded the authority of healthcare professionals already licensed to administer vaccines and increased the number of professionals who could be temporarily licensed to assist at events like the mass vaccination clinics going on across the commonwealth. 

The temporary waivers that the Department of State has issued in the past 13 months have had positive benefits for licensees and in turn for all Pennsylvanians. None of this would have been possible without the governor’s emergency disaster declaration. From visiting with our doctors from home via telemedicine to getting vaccinated against COVID-19, we have all directly and indirectly been helped by Pennsylvania’s ability to respond to this pandemic rapidly and flexibly.

— Kalonji Johnson is commissioner of the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs.