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The Philly suburbs will get two mass vaccination sites, despite objections from ‘disappointed’ county leaders

The announcement came during an exchange in which the governor did not seem aware of the specifics of the state's ongoing dispute with the region.

Gov. Tom Wolf looks at a vial of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site set up setup for teachers and school staff at the Berks County Intermediate Unit in Reading on Monday, March 15.
Gov. Tom Wolf looks at a vial of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site set up setup for teachers and school staff at the Berks County Intermediate Unit in Reading on Monday, March 15.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

Pennsylvania health officials have agreed to set up two mass vaccination clinics in Philadelphia’s collar counties, the state said Friday, after local officials complained that a planned single site would not be accessible to most residents.

The state has earmarked 42,000 Johnson & Johnson doses per week for its Southeastern clinic, so the two new sites would split those shots. The plan, part of a broader initiative by state health officials to open mass sites in each region of the state, would increase the number of shots available to residents of Chester, Bucks, Montgomery, and Delaware Counties.

Although the counties agreed to identify locations for the new clinics, their leaders still said they were “extremely disappointed” that the Department of Health was disregarding their request to distribute the shots through their own clinics. They had asked the state to give the J&J supply directly to them, saying that would be more equitable for the sprawling region than one site run by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

“We have reiterated our concerns that equitable distribution is being compromised,” Delaware County said in a statement.

Its statement also said the county would not be involved in scheduling or administering vaccine. And it came a day after regional leaders said they had unanswered questions about how the PEMA sites would operate and schedule appointments.

They also argued that the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine should be used for vulnerable populations, such as people experiencing homelessness. Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh has requested a separate allocation of the one-dose vaccines for homeless, homebound, and incarcerated people, a county spokesperson said; Chester County is seeking the same.

Bucks County Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia echoed that sentiment Friday, saying her county would prefer to use the J&J vaccine for “difficult-to-reach and homebound” populations. Instead, she said, officials “have been forced to acquiesce to Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam’s plans.”

» READ MORE: Suburban Philly officials to Pa. Health Department: One mass vaccination site for the region would ‘deepen the inequities’

The casual announcement of the two sites by Gov. Tom Wolf at a Friday news briefing came during an exchange in which the governor did not appear aware of the specifics of the ongoing dispute between Southeastern Pennsylvania and his health department over the mass clinic proposal. Repeatedly asked about the counties’ request to distribute the Johnson & Johnson vaccine through their own clinics rather than a state-run mass site, Wolf indicated he was unfamiliar with the specifics of the complaints.

In response to a question about the discord, the governor said at a Doylestown news conference touting the progress of teacher vaccinations: “I think we actually have two [sites] in the region, so we’re trying to acknowledge that if we can do some things that we’re not, we’re happy to do that. But again you have to go back to how well Pennsylvania is doing.”

The Department of Health had not previously announced the plan for two sites but confirmed the move to The Inquirer.

» READ MORE: A rough vaccine rollout has even Democrats turning on Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf

The conflict between the region’s leaders and the Department of Health began weeks ago. After sparring over the amount of vaccine the state was directing to the Southeast — data analysis by The Inquirer showed the region was receiving the lowest number of doses per capita in the state — county officials in the region became frustrated by a plan announced by the state last week to bring a mass vaccination clinic to the region.

They asked the Department of Health to simply send the doses to the counties, which already have the capacity to distribute the shots at their public clinics. The Department of Health this week responded to the requests by accusing county officials of “bemoaning” their responsibility to provide vaccine.

Beam explained the department’s position Thursday by saying health officials want to use the state’s supply of Johnson & Johnson vaccine for the PEMA clinics rather than distributing it to providers, who will continue getting Pfizer and Moderna doses. Chester County this week received 4,340 first doses, on par with previous weeks, while Delaware County got 9,300 first doses, which marks a continued increase. Montgomery County saw a slight uptick, receiving 5,850 first doses.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office reiterated in a statement to The Inquirer on Friday that the state is working to distribute the vaccine equitably and efficiently, saying the southeast counties “are getting their fair share of vaccine, and each week they are receiving more.”

U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.) asked Wolf and Beam on Friday to consider abandoning the plan for the mass clinics. In a letter signed by 12 other Bucks and Montgomery County officials, he laid out an argument for allowing the county health departments to distribute the shots.

“The counties already have the existing vaccination sites, [which] could more effectively and conveniently vaccinate our residents,” he wrote. “It is critical that we have a solution where we utilize the existing infrastructure and not cause additional burdens to our residents who are still awaiting a vaccination date.”

The state has not said whether residents would have to sign up on a new list to get in line for appointments. Tens of thousands are already on county waiting lists; Fitzpatrick and local leaders raised concerns about the potential for a new registration portal to cause confusion.

The health department aims to put a PEMA site in each of the state’s six regions, and it will split its weekly shipment of 200,000 Johnson & Johnson doses between those locations and separate clinics for frontline workers.

The state has used its first influx of Johnson & Johnson to vaccinate teachers and child-care workers. Wolf said Friday that all eligible educators who want to be vaccinated will have received a shot by the end of March.

Wolf also said he had not heard a Department of Health spokesperson’s comments this week to The Inquirer accusing collar counties’ leaders of “wasting precious time” by asking for more than one mass vaccination site. He repeated praise for Pennsylvania’s rollout when asked questions about the frustration among many in the Southeast.

“Again we’re doing a phenomenal job, I think, in Pennsylvania,” the governor said. “The results are really good.”

”I think you have to scratch your head,” he added, “to find out what it is we could be doing better.”