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Pa. health secretary says suburbs weren’t under-supplied with COVID-19 vaccine, but lawmakers still ‘frustrated’

The secretary said the collar counties’ allocations would increase as the state’s supply increases, but did not say the counties’ share of vaccine would increase.

Pat DeHorsey administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a healthcare worker at Montgomery County Community College on Jan. 6.
Pat DeHorsey administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a healthcare worker at Montgomery County Community College on Jan. 6.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania’s acting health secretary told lawmakers on a call Sunday that the region’s supply of the coronavirus vaccine had not been under-allocated, saying the Department of Health was committed to ensuring that all counties get what they should but did not have specific plans to increase the share going to the Philadelphia suburbs.

Montgomery, Chester, Bucks and Delaware Counties meet or exceed the state’s average vaccination rate of 15%, Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said. And using an allocation formula put in place at the start of February, the state has been “getting counties closer” over the last month to the shares they should have based on that formula, she said.

But after weeks of seeking answers about whether the counties were getting their fair share of doses, some lawmakers said the state still needed to send more doses to the region, questioned the department’s metrics, and said they were unsatisfied with the data Beam supplied on the call. The call, to which The Inquirer gained access, was attended by state legislators and county officials from Southeastern Pennsylvania.

“I am still left extremely frustrated and concerned in a big way,” said Rep. Jennifer O’Mara, a Delaware County Democrat.

» READ MORE: Suburban Philly lawmakers demand answers on vaccine rollout after state officials abruptly reschedule meeting

Even as Beam said a complete picture of the state’s complex vaccine data did not indicate inequity for the region, a chart she presented showed that Delaware and Bucks Counties would be considered significantly under-supplied if the state’s new formula were applied retroactively.

After the call, Rep. Craig Williams (R., Delaware and Chester) said the Department of Health should send “tens of thousands of doses into Delaware County.”

But the Department of Health said the chart was theoretical and did not represent reality, in part because Delaware County had not requested a significant number of Pfizer doses early on. Beam said Bucks County had been affected by a data reporting issue and that Delaware County got lower allocations at the start of the rollout because it could not store the Pfizer vaccine.

“The governor is committed to getting the Southeastern counties as much vaccine as possible,” Gov. Tom Wolf’s chief of staff, Mike Brunelle, told officials on the call. But he added, “There is not a seismic, structural challenge here to be fixed.”

How the still-limited supply gets distributed across Pennsylvania has become a key issue in the state’s vaccine rollout in the region. An Inquirer data analysis last week indicated the suburban Philadelphia counties were receiving fewer doses per capita than other counties, something local officials were already concerned about. But Beam said the data had been mischaracterized.

“Folks in the collar counties are getting vaccinated,” she said.

» READ MORE: Messy suburban vaccine rollout: Does the Pa. Health Department have control of this situation or not? | Maria Panaritis

Beam said the counties’ allocations would increase as the state’s supply increases, but did not say the counties’ share of vaccine would increase. Though she said the department would continue moving counties closer to the share the formula indicates they should receive, she did not provide any specific steps the department would take to do so or say which of Pennsylvania’s counties needed improvement.

She said the health department would help any counties whose administration rate drops below the state average and would provide talking points to help lawmakers explain the data to their constituents.

“I wanted a commitment to make up the lost doses that rightfully should’ve gone to Delaware County … and a commitment to it going forward, but we didn’t get that,” said Rep. Mike Zabel, a Delaware County Democrat. “They did express a desire to … make sure that [the counties] were not under-supplied going forward, and I believe that has a chance of happening. But there’s a deficit that has to be made right.”

The counties’ rate of vaccine administration — a metric used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to measure success, Beam said — is one of the state’s key measurements.

“The fact that the collar counties are at or above the state average, to us, is an important indicator because ultimately what we care about is shots getting into arms,” said Keara Klinepeter, executive deputy secretary of the Department of Health. “[It] is the true hallmark of how we are doing in terms of getting shots in arms across counties.”

Some lawmakers, however, said they wanted to see clearer data and said the metric did not represent the counties’ vaccine supply because residents have gotten shots in other counties.

“It’s problematic for you to rely on those,” Rep. Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery) told Beam on the call. “We might have 20% of our population getting vaccinated, but it wasn’t in Montgomery County. They’re going elsewhere to get it done because … your department is not giving us enough to vaccinate our own population.”

The state’s allocation formula takes into account population, population over 65, the number of coronavirus cases, and the number of virus deaths to calculate allocations for each county; those are then adjusted based on provider requests and capacity, Beam said.

But even in February, after the formula had been put in place, Southeastern Pennsylvania received the lowest number of doses per capita of any region in the state, an Inquirer analysis of state data found.

Since Feb. 1, the Southeast has received about 8,000 doses per 100,000 people, the data showed, compared with 19,000 doses per capita in the Northwest, which received the most.

After the call, lawmakers from both parties said the state should send more vaccine or modify its allocation formula.

Williams, the Republican who represents parts of Delaware and Chester Counties, said the call was “grossly unsatisfactory.”

”I expected there would be some good reasons put forward, and what we got were rationalizations,” Williams said. “I expected to hear a plan, and what we got was a vague commitment to catch up over time.”

Other factors Beam cited in explaining the state’s rollout included the small number of providers receiving vaccine in December due to the Pfizer vaccine’s storage requirements; the large number of vaccines distributed through federal partners to nursing homes, pharmacies, and others that add to the number of people who have been inoculated; and the higher allotments in counties with large health systems, such as Montour or Allegheny, that may appear as outliers because the systems distribute vaccine to many subsidiaries.

Lawmakers said that could disadvantage this region because suburban residents who are patients at Philadelphia’s major hospitals are not able to get shots in the city because of Philadelphia’s independent vaccine distribution. Rep. Perry Warren, a Bucks County Democrat, said that should be taken into account when determining how much vaccine gets delivered.

Beam also said the allotment depended on how many doses providers requested and how many providers had the capacity to distribute each week. The Department of Health was not immediately able to clarify questions from The Inquirer about whether providers across the Southeast requested fewer doses than those in other parts of the state.

Klinepeter said the Department of Health was committed to transparency and to “continuing the dialogue and working with legislators to answer their questions.”

But some legislators wondered what the next steps would be.

“I did not leave the call with the sense that there is a clear path going forward,” Warren said.

Staff graphics artist Chris A. Williams contributed to this article.