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Pa. and Philly expand COVID-19 vaccine groups, but confusion remains for residents

With the doses coming in from the federal government still far lower than the number of people who want them, it is unclear how quickly and easily people will be able to get vaccination appointments.

Pharmacist Nadine M. Mackey, left, injects the COVID-19 vaccine into the arm of a nursing home nurse at the Power Back Rehabilitation, in Phoenixville on Monday, December 28, 2020.
Pharmacist Nadine M. Mackey, left, injects the COVID-19 vaccine into the arm of a nursing home nurse at the Power Back Rehabilitation, in Phoenixville on Monday, December 28, 2020.Read more / Staff Photographer

More than 2.5 million additional Pennsylvanians became eligible Tuesday for the coronavirus vaccine as both the state and Philadelphia broadened their distribution plans, but officials warned it would take time for people to get their shots because the federal government has not shipped enough doses.

People 65 and older in Pennsylvania, some frontline workers and people 75 and older in Philadelphia — which is administering the vaccine independently — and anyone in the state or city 16 and older with a high-risk medical condition now qualify for inoculation.

With the number of doses coming in still far lower than the number of people who want them, however, it is unclear how quickly and easily people will be able to get appointments.

“Yes, there will be plenty of confusion. Yes, there will be, unfortunately, many people who want to get this vaccine but can’t get it for some period of time because there’s not enough of it,” said Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley. “But that’s just simply where we are right now with the number of doses available in the country.”

President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office Wednesday, plans to vaccinate 100 million people in his first 100 days in office, increase vaccine supply using the Defense Production Act, and open community vaccination centers and mobile clinics. But it is not yet clear how quickly more vaccine can be manufactured.

“If they can deliver that many doses … we absolutely can get it into people’s arms,” Farley said Tuesday.

The current supply is so limited that Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia scaled back its vaccination of employees — for now, offering it only to those with specific risk — in order to help increase the city’s vaccine supply for the new phase, according to an email sent by CHOP executives to employees Tuesday and obtained by The Inquirer.

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The email said the city health department had asked health-care systems to do so, but a city spokesperson said that hospitals can continue vaccinating anyone eligible and that officials had been told the pace of employee vaccinations at city hospitals had slowed.

As the United States passed 400,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths on Tuesday, by far the most of any country, Philadelphia announced its second confirmed case of the highly transmissible coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom — and Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine was tapped to become assistant health secretary in the Biden administration.

Pennsylvania reported 5,341 newly confirmed coronavirus cases and 77 deaths. Philadelphia announced 551 new cases Tuesday.

And in New Jersey, hospitalizations remained stable, defying modeling predictions that health officials had said portended a spike in cases in the weeks after the holidays. The state added 3,761 cases and 54 deaths.

Philadelphia’s next phase

In addition to adults with health conditions or 75 and older, first responders, public transit workers, and service providers working with high-risk populations are also now eligible for the vaccine in Philadelphia.

They should wait to be contacted by their employers to schedule a shot, while eligible older and at-risk adults should contact their doctors to start the process of getting the vaccination, city officials said.

The city had administered more than 72,000 first doses of the vaccine as of Tuesday. Health-care systems and clinics will begin distributing vaccinations to their highest-risk patients this week as they continue to vaccinate their own health-care workers, Farley said.

Teachers, child-care workers, and food service workers will be eligible next, but must wait until the first group is vaccinated — which Farley said could take several weeks. Health officials asked teachers who work in Philadelphia but live elsewhere to first try to get vaccinated where they live because the city’s vaccine calculations are based on its population.

Farley acknowledged it will be “a little bit complicated” for Philadelphia to have different vaccination rules than the neighboring counties. Still, he said the city would stick with its own plan to vaccinate residents 75 and older before opening up to younger seniors.

The city’s system, he said, was developed with an emphasis on racial equity and therefore is focused on vaccinating people with high-risk medical conditions that are common among Black residents rather than offering vaccines to all residents who are 65 and older.

It will take several months for everyone in the city who wants a vaccination to get one, Farley said. He asked residents and employers who sign up on the to-be-launched website to be patient.

“It may be weeks or months before they are notified,” he said, “but people will be notified when that group becomes eligible.”

Scheduling appointments in Pa.

Pennsylvania residents who are eligible for the vaccine can go to a new map of providers to find a location that may have available doses. When a location runs out of doses, it displays a red dot on the map; locations with possible openings show up as green dots.

Residents contact the providers to make appointments. The state does not have an appointment-scheduling website or hotline. The health department did not respond to questions from The Inquirer about the rollout on Tuesday.

Preregistration for the vaccine is open in Montgomery County. Bucks County said it was updating its form after the state’s announcement and preregistration would be available soon; the joint form for Chester County and Delaware County residents will be available after 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.

State residents can also take a vaccine eligibility quiz on the state’s website to find out whether they are in the vaccine-eligible group or need to continue waiting.

According to the state, 409,438 first doses have been administered. By the end of the week, the state will have been allocated more than one million doses.

New Jersey will add teachers next

New Jersey is improving its vaccine distribution, Gov. Phil Murphy said; the state had reported more than 407,000 doses administered by Tuesday evening. But he again said the state needs more supplies from the federal government.

“The expectations, explicitly, were for significantly more doses of vaccine to come to New Jersey,” Murphy said. “There’s a supply-demand imbalance, period, and it’s gotten only worse, not better.”

Vaccination sites should be setting aside second doses as they administer first doses, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said, and anyone receiving a first dose should make an appointment for the second before leaving the vaccination site.

State health officials said they are working with vaccine sites to coordinate second doses so that people who start receiving them are able to complete the inoculation, but that if someone did not get a second appointment when receiving their shot, they should contact the vaccination site.

Teachers are next in line to be added to the pool of eligible recipients, Murphy said, but he did not indicate how soon that could happen.

If the amount of doses manufactured begins to increase, it is still possible that the 4.5 million people who are currently eligible in the state could be vaccinated by the end of May, Murphy said — a grim assessment reflecting the country’s current capacity.

“The state is working hard to vaccinate as many eligible people as possible with the available doses that we have,” Persichilli said.