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

Leaders of all four suburban counties are pushing the state to give them vaccine doses — without a mass clinic.

A health worker prepares a vaccine dose during a vaccination clinic at the Grand Yesha Ballroom in South Philadelphia on Wednesday.
A health worker prepares a vaccine dose during a vaccination clinic at the Grand Yesha Ballroom in South Philadelphia on Wednesday.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

County leaders in Philadelphia’s suburbs asked state health officials Wednesday to reconsider plans for a single mass vaccination clinic in the southeast, instead requesting the doses simply go to existing government-run clinics in the four counties that are ready to deliver tens of thousands of shots.

In a 30-minute call, Department of Health leaders committed only to continuing the conversation, perhaps later this week, local officials said.

“We are standing united with our neighbors: Each of the counties should have a site,” said Monica Taylor, vice chair of Delaware County Council.

Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery County commissioners and council members spoke to acting Health Secretary Alison Beam the day after she sent a letter to the region’s officials assuring them that the Philly suburbs would secure one of the state’s regional vaccine sites.

The counties, however, point to their own clinics, which, combined, they say could vaccinate around 100,000 people a week. The single mass vaccination site would get about 42,000 shots a week, according to Chester County Commissioner Josh Maxwell. A single location across the sprawling region — it can take two hours to drive from one end to the other, Taylor noted — isn’t the most logical way to use that supply, county commissioners said.

» READ MORE: The Philly suburbs will get a regional vaccine clinic, the Wolf administration says, but it’s unclear how many people it can vaccinate

They say their strategy would make the vaccine more accessible to eligible residents, which include people 65 and older and those with high-risk conditions, by putting vaccine in multiple clinics that are part of long-standing county emergency plans.

“The four of us do share concerns that with only a single location in our region you would really have to have a car in almost all cases to get there, the drive times could be extensive, and we worry that this would only further deepen the inequities that we are already seeing,” said Montgomery County Commissioners’ Chair Val Arkoosh at a Wednesday news briefing.

There is also concern that the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which would be used at the mass vaccination site, should go to people who are homebound, experiencing homelessness, or for other reasons would be better served with a single dose — another reason the counties should distribute the vaccine, said Bucks County Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia.

“There are all kinds of disparities and people we are not reaching,” she said, “and having one site that people without cars cannot get to, that low-income people maybe cannot afford the gas or the tolls. ... It’s just perpetuating that this is an upper-income, majority-race regional site.”

» READ MORE: Philly is trying to improve vaccine racial equity. The FEMA site made it worse.

The Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment about the call with the counties. The mass vaccination site is part of the state’s effort to ramp up vaccine distribution with an incoming supply of Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Bucks County has four clinics operating but could add two, and could dispense 15,000 to 20,000 shots a week. Delaware County could vaccinate up to 25,000 residents a week. Chester County could do about 20,000 a week with its existing sites and could add more, Maxwell said.

Montgomery County requested the maximum number of doses allowed by the state for next week, 23,400, but could distribute more, Arkoosh said.

Maxwell, the Chester County commissioner, said he believed the counties needed to demonstrate to the state that they have the capacity to administer the doses. They also requested that someone representing the county governments join the state’s COVID-19 task force.

“Having county representation as part of the decision-making would be very helpful,” Maxwell said. “I think it would help alleviate a lot of the communications issues.”

Commissioners will talk Thursday with State Sen. Art Haywood, a Democrat who represents Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties and is on the state’s task force, Marseglia said. She said she also had reached out to Bucks County’s state legislators for support.

“No one thinks this is a good idea,” she said of the mass site.

State Rep. Frank Farry (R., Bucks) said conversations were ongoing in Harrisburg, where the legislature returned to session this week, saying he was also pushing the Wolf administration on the issue.

“I don’t think we need to make this more complicated,” he said Wednesday. “What’s the sense of starting a whole other site if we have sites that are there [but] just need more shots?”

Farry also said he would continue advocating for a bill that would require the state to distribute vaccine to counties based on population. State health officials say their allocation process is working because collar-county residents are getting vaccinated at rates comparable to or above the state average, even if they are driving around the state to get doses.

Meanwhile, all the southeastern counties — whose per-capita allotments have been the lowest in the state, according to an Inquirer analysis — received larger allotments of vaccine doses this week.

Officials will learn later this week how many vaccines they’ll get next week and have been told that allocation will stay steady for the following several weeks. That will make it easier for them to schedule appointments for everyone in the 1A category by the end of the month, as Wolf said last week was the state’s goal.

» READ MORE: Philly suburbs can’t inoculate everyone in group 1A by May 1 unless they get a lot more vaccine, officials say

Montgomery County has estimated it will take four to five months to vaccinate the 127,000 people in 1A on its waiting list unless the supply expands. Asked about that on Monday, Wolf indicated he didn’t believe it should take that long.

“If something’s going to change — perhaps the governor’s aware that we’re going to get a lot more doses than we have been made aware of here on the ground — that would be such welcome news,” Arkoosh said. “I just have to hope that maybe there’s some information that hasn’t been shared with us yet.”