St. Francis COVID-19 vaccines

Mainline Pharmacy intern Allyson Smathers injects St. Francis University nursing student Meghan Moxley with a Moderna vaccine on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021.

HARRISBURG – The Department of Health is working to make it easier for people to connect to locations that have COVID-19 vaccines, an agency spokeswoman said Wednesday.

People will continue to schedule their appointment with their vaccine provider but the department is "working on making the logistics more user-friendly" when people try to use the state website to identify where vaccine doses are available, said April Hutcheson, a Department of Health spokeswoman.

“We’re working on it, right now,” Hutcheson said. “It’s like building an airplane while it’s being readied for takeoff.” 

Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday acknowledged that the state needs to do a better job helping people get access to vaccine doses. Acting Secretary of Health April Beam said state officials decided that it made more sense for people to schedule their appointments directly with the location offering the vaccine.

The Department of State’s website provides links to help connect people to those vaccine locations but lawmakers said this week that they’re getting complaints that the website is difficult to manage.

The state’s rollout of the vaccine has come under increasing scrutiny particularly in light of federal data showing that by several measures the state is performing poorly.

Pennsylvania has administered 770,965 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Department of Health. Only California, Texas, Florida and New York have had more COVID-19 vaccine doses administered than Pennsylvania, according to the CDC.

But when the measures are adjusted for population size or based on the share of doses administered compared to the number provided to the state, Pennsylvania ranks closer to the bottom of the pack, CDC data shows.

Only Georgia, Alabama, Hawaii, California, Maryland, Rhode Island, Virginia and Kansas have administered smaller shares of the doses provided to them than Pennsylvania.

North Dakota, which has administered 75,242 out of 86,750, is tops in the country by that measure, at just under 87%. West Virginia, which has administered 203,992 out of 243,100 doses is second at just under 84%. Only 13 states are ranked lower than Pennsylvania, based on doses administered per 100,000 residents.

A good portion of the vaccine that the federal shows have been provided to Pennsylvania included doses that will be used to provide second doses to residents who’ve already gotten their first shots. By the end of the week, Pennsylvania will have received 1.8 million doses, Hutcheson said. Of those, 931,050 are to provide the first doses for people and 884,700 will be for people to get their second shots.

Pennsylvania has administered about 65% of the doses allocated for initial doses, Hutcheson said.

One challenge is that hospitals and pharmacies that need to give the second dose are also scheduling and delivering the first dose, she said.

Hospitals are receiving shipments allocated for second doses separately from the shipments of doses intended for people receiving their first shot, Hutcheson said.

“UPMC is following the guidance of the Department of Health and administering first doses from the first shipment and second doses from the second shipment of vaccinations, which have arrived for them to be administered at the proper time,” said Sarah Deist, a spokeswoman at UPMC Somerset. As a result, all shots intended to provide initial doses are still being directed toward people getting their first shot, she said.

As of Tuesday, Geisinger Health System had provided 45,000 COVID-19 vaccine shots, including 7,000 second doses, said Joseph Stender, a Geisinger spokesman.

“To date, we have been told that the state is prioritizing second doses and will distribute an adequate supply of second dose vaccines,” Stender said. “This has been a fluid process that we continue to monitor on a daily basis."

Residents should be patient until there is more vaccine and more funding available, said Rachel Moore, a spokeswoman for the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania.

"We are hopeful that additional federal resources will increase the supply, but in the meantime, we need Pennsylvanians’ help. We ask everyone to be patient and wait for word from the commonwealth or from their health care provider about when it is their turn to be vaccinated, and to not flood their local hospital’s phone lines," Moore said. "Additionally, during this critical time, we ask Pennsylvanians to help our health care workers by slowing the spread of COVID-19. They can do this by continuing to wear masks, maintaining distance from people outside their households, staying home if they are sick, and contact their health care provider with questions about their health."

Hutcheson said that it’s difficult to make comparisons about the rollout in other states because states are handling the delivery of the second doses differently. There are also substantial differences in the population that make the vaccine rollout different from state to state, she said.

For instance, Pennsylvania has 600 nursing homes which were targeted in the initial phase of vaccine distribution. Only Texas, California, Illinois, Florida and Ohio have more.

The program to vaccinate nursing home and long-term care residents isn’t scheduled to be completed until the end of February or early March, Hutcheson said.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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