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Pa. health officials accuse Philly collar counties of ‘wasting precious time’ over mass vaccination plan

Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said the state wants to use the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine at its own mass clinics while local governments continue vaccinating with Pfizer and Moderna.

Michael Stepenaskie prepares COVID-19 syringe vaccine at the Delaware County/Penn Health vaccination site in Radnor, Pa.
Michael Stepenaskie prepares COVID-19 syringe vaccine at the Delaware County/Penn Health vaccination site in Radnor, Pa.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The Pennsylvania Department of Health accused Southeastern county leaders of “wasting precious time” with their request that the state distribute coronavirus vaccine doses to county-run clinics rather than sending them to a single mass vaccination site for the entire region.

The Health Department appeared to dismiss the counties’ request Thursday, pressuring them to choose a location for the regional mass vaccination clinic. The move came a day after county officials told acting Health Secretary Alison Beam that it would be more efficient and equitable to give the doses to clinics that are already ready to give out shots.

County leaders “have chosen to bemoan even this responsibility” and are “belaboring” the decision by proposing an alternative plan, a Department of Health spokesperson said in a statement to The Inquirer.

In a joint statement, the elected leaders of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties said they remain concerned that the regional site would compromise equitable vaccine distribution and questioned details of the state’s plans for running the site.

County officials said they would comply with the department’s request to identify potential locations for the mass clinic but begged the state to reconsider.

“We are extremely disappointed to hear that PA DoH is not considering our request,” they wrote. “We implore [the state] to allocate its surplus supply of the one shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine to counties directly.”

State Rep. Chris Quinn (R., Delaware) also sent a letter to Beam and the task force, urging them to accommodate the county officials’ request, saying the counties’ plan would increase efficiency and equity.

“There are better options than a single mass vaccination site for the suburban counties,” he tweeted.

County leaders’ concerns about the mass site include how it would affect people who cannot drive and how it would function for a sprawling region.

The mass clinic would be one of several set up by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Association across the state using the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Starting at the end of the month, the state is slated to receive a steady supply of J&J doses, which will be used at the regional sites and for frontline-worker clinics.

At a news briefing Thursday, Beam said the state wants to use the Johnson & Johnson doses at its clinics while county health departments and other governments continue vaccinating with the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The PEMA-run clinic would focus on getting a high volume of people vaccinated.

“Creating that mass vaccination site has the intention of alleviating that volume pressure [the counties] are feeling so that they can narrow in on reaching their equity goals, which we likewise share with them and feel that they are actually best situated on to deliver,” Beam said Thursday in her first public comments since the dispute erupted with Southeastern Pennsylvania over the region’s supply of doses.

The county officials said the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine would be especially beneficial to people experiencing homelessness or who are homebound.

They also said the Health Department had not provided answers about how the state would schedule appointments for the PEMA clinic and whether registration would be accessible by phone or in multiple languages. “The last thing we want is to see our constituents have to sign up for yet another list when they have already been waiting for weeks,” they said.

Beam noted that her department has steadily increased the counties’ allocations of the Pfizer and Moderna doses over the last several weeks. (As the federal supply increases, the state’s supply is increasing.) County health departments are “not being cut out of this at all,” she said.

“We worked with the Southeast leadership to allow them to pick an actual geographic location that best suits their local leadership perspective,” Beam said, “and we hope we have that continued cooperation and collaboration ... in making sure that mass vaccination site is a success.”

The county leaders said Bucks and Montgomery Counties would propose one location for the mass site and Chester and Delaware would propose the other. They will also offer other options, they said, in hopes that the Department of Health “will give further consideration to our request to allow the four counties to distribute the vaccine.”

Also Thursday, the Health Department said it was adding to its open data page, which provides information about the virus and vaccinations, and transferring its vaccine provider map to Google’s mapping platform. Over the last few weeks, the suburban officials repeatedly asked the state to provide more data, and the map has faced criticism from residents, advocates, and officials for being difficult to use.

The suburban counties were not the only ones questioning the state’s distribution of the limited supply of vaccine.

Penn Medicine said in an email to patients on Thursday that it was waiting on Pennsylvania to deliver a supply of vaccine so the health system can begin vaccinating residents of Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties. For the last few weeks, it has been using some of Delaware County’s vaccine supply to inoculate patients at Penn Medicine Radnor. Philadelphia gets a separate allocation from the federal government, which the city’s health systems can use only for patients who live in the city.

So far, the vaccine supply we have received to take care of our patients who live in the southeastern Pennsylvania suburbs has been substantially less than what we have been ready and able to deliver,” the email said.

» READ MORE: Philly hospitals care for thousands of suburban patients but can’t give them COVID-19 vaccines

The Department of Health has begun implementing a plan laid out last month to cut back on vaccine providers statewide, reducing the number from about 1,700 to about 300 because the state’s vaccine supply is limited. As the state receives more shots, it will expand the number of providers again.

But some smaller pharmacies were upset Thursday upon being notified by the Department of Health that they would no longer be able to give out shots.

“It just does not make any sense,” said Mel Brodsky, executive director of the Philadelphia Association of Retail Druggists. “The community stores, they know their patients, they can get a hold of them and get them vaccinated.”

A half-dozen pharmacists who reached out to Brodsky on Thursday had already scheduled appointments based on their expected allotment. They now must cancel those appointments, and notify people on their waitlist, Brodsky said. (Philadelphia, which distributes vaccine independently, is not cutting back on providers.)

The Health Department acknowledged providers’ disappointment but said the change would help the state distribute between 750,000 and one million vaccines a week. “We applaud you for having stepped up to be leaders in your communities,” it told pharmacists in an email, “and we look forward to the day when we can distribute vaccine to all our providers.”

Staff writer Jason Laughlin contributed to this article.