With the nation’s great vaccine ramp-up evidently encountering some speed humps and demand continuing to well exceed available supplies, officials reported Friday that a Philadelphia-area woman had tested positive for a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus first identified in the United Kingdom.
Health officials said that a woman in her 50s, who they did not name and identified only as a resident of both Philadelphia and Bucks Counties, was briefly hospitalized after experiencing symptoms late last month. The strain, which they said isn’t more virulent or vaccine-resistant, also was detected in a Dauphin County woman last month.
Meanwhile, fresh concerns about the progress of Operation Warp Speed emerged Friday as the Washington Post reported that the reserves that a federal official said this week would be available actually don’t exist — that the shipping of those backup supplies had begun in early December.
“That’s a pile of doses that all states were counting on to have a ramp-up,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy at his daily briefing. The state had set a goal of having 70% of the eligible population vaccinated by April or May. “It is becoming increasingly apparent that we are ready, they [federal officials] are not.”
As Burlington County opened its first mass COVID-19 vaccination center on Friday in the vast, shiny, mirrored space of a recently defunct Lord & Taylor at the Moorestown Mall, it quickly went through its allotted doses, leaving officials to plead for more to meet the huge demand.
“We urge everyone to be patient. We understand that people are anxious,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said.
The state added 5,490 new cases, numbers comparable to the epidemic peaks, and 67 deaths. Hospitalizations have remained stable for weeks. Pennsylvania’s most recent seven-day average of positive tests, 6,150, represented a 2% decline from the previous seven-day figure.
Sometime this weekend, it is a near certainty that the City of Camden will reach an unwanted milestone: With just 40 more cases, the presence of the virus will have been confirmed in 10% of the population.
Herb Conaway, a doctor who is also director of Burlington County’s health department and a state assemblyman, encouraged people to get vaccinated, but asked for patience. The Moorestown facility, operated jointly by the county and Virtua Health, along with help from the National Guard, has the capacity to vaccinate 2,400 daily.
The county expects to receive 3,000 doses next week. However, it had only 400 available on Friday, even after Murphy opened up vaccinations to anyone over 65 or anyone with qualifying medical conditions. Previously, vaccines were mostly reserved for health-care workers, or those who work or live in long-term care facilities.
More than 160 sites in New Jersey are giving vaccines, and thousands of residents have been able to make appointments, but others have reported long delays to get through to the website and appointments that book up immediately.
State officials said a hotline with information about vaccines would be announced next week.
Murphy defended the pace of the state’s vaccine rollout on Friday, saying that New Jersey was struggling with the same challenges as other states.
“There’s no evidence that anywhere else is easier to get a vaccine than New Jersey right now,” Murphy said.
But Pennsylvania, New York, and Delaware all have distributed a higher number of vaccines per 100,000 people than has New Jersey, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And Philadelphia has been a notable exception to the virus snafu, successfully injecting up to 55% of the doses it has received in nearly a month. That rate gives it the best performance among many large cities in the country, an Inquirer analysis showed, attributable to the Health Department taking a particularly active role in getting doses to the places they’re needed, officials said.
“Rather than having it sit in refrigerators,” said Caroline Johnson, Philadelphia’s deputy health commissioner, “we accept it, we subdivide it, and move it around the city.”
About 40% of all the vaccine the city receives each week, about 5,000 doses, goes directly to the department, which then opens the boxes and repacks vials of vaccine for delivery to those smaller hospitals and health centers, Johnson said.
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“All available evidence” shows that the vaccine would be effective against the newly surfaced B.1.1.7 variant, said David Damsker, the Bucks County health director, adding, “So long as that continues to be the case, we will treat this variant the same as our other cases.”
It does appear to be more contagious than its evil relative, COVID-19, according to a Penn Medicine news release, but has not yet been verified, said Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley. “Nonetheless, we are concerned that it is present in Philadelphia,” he said. “Everyone in the area should take this information as a reminder to be even more consistent in wearing masks and keeping distance from others.”
With U.S. virus-related deaths approaching 400,000, the venerable St. Peter’s Episcopal Church at Third and Pine Streets, will ring its largest bell 400 times at 3 p.m. Sunday.
The churchyard will be open if anyone wishes to stop by for reflection, prayer, or just to listen to the bells.
Staff writers Frank Kummer, Jason Laughlin, and Peter Dobrin contributed to this article.