Pennsylvania will allow everyone 16 and older to get the coronavirus vaccine on April 19, with many able to schedule appointments sooner, state officials announced Wednesday, days after other states across the country opened up appointments to all adult residents and President Joe Biden urged that the rollout be accelerated.
While all adults will be eligible two weeks from Monday, law enforcement, firefighters, grocery store workers, and food and agriculture workers became immediately eligible Wednesday. The entire 1B group will be eligible on Monday, and 1C will be eligible a week later, on April 12, acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said.
The changes will not affect Philadelphia, which is distributing its vaccine independently. A spokesperson said the city would not change its plan in response to the state. City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said this week that the city will open eligibility to all adults no later than May 1, following federal guidance.
Those Pennsylvanians already eligible in phase 1A, which includes seniors, people with high-risk conditions, health-care workers, and others, remain able to schedule shots. The expansions will be supported by increased predictability in the federal vaccine allocations and a growing supply of shots, officials said at the news briefing.
In Philadelphia’s collar counties, the Pennsylvania Department of Health no longer plans to open two mass clinics, and instead will divide a supply of single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses among the four counties — something that county leaders had requested and that the Department of Health had originally rebuffed.
Biden has directed states to ensure that 90% of adults will be eligible on April 19, and demand has changed within Pennsylvania as more people become fully vaccinated. As of Wednesday, nearly 3.5 million Pennsylvanians, had received at least one dose, with more than 1.8 million of them fully vaccinated. The state, which has stuck to vaccinating people in the 1A category, ranks above the national average in the percentage of adults vaccinated.
“We need to expand Pennsylvania’s eligibility immediately,” Beam told The Inquirer in a Wednesday interview, “to, again, really keep the urgency behind the vaccination administration effort and allow us to vaccinate as many folks as possible.”
In each of the state’s various regions, 70% to 95% of people eligible in phase 1A who wanted the vaccine have been vaccinated as of Wednesday — the state’s deadline for getting appointments scheduled for all people in 1A — according to Beam. She said 80% of residents are estimated to want the vaccine.
In some places, providers have asked the state to make more people eligible, saying they can’t fill all their open appointments.
“We have faced a challenging situation from the aggressive timetable of President Biden,” said State Sen. Art Haywood (D., Montgomery and Philadelphia), a member of the COVID-19 legislative task force. “However, what has happened is that the president has dramatically increased supply, and April and May will be nothing like February and March.”
Asked whether the rapid expansion of eligibility could cause another backlog of residents seeking appointments, Beam indicated officials were not concerned: For the first time in the rollout, providers can now rely on a certain number of weekly doses and schedule appointments much further in advance. The supply projections include an increase in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“We are on a different playing field than we were previously and the amount of supply that will be coming to us … through the month of April, that’s going to be truly game-changing,” Beam said.
(The Department of Health said it did not know whether the late Wednesday news that Johnson & Johnson was halting shipments from a U.S. factory after 15 million vaccine doses were ruined in manufacturing could affect Pennsylvania but said it did not change the state’s eligibility plans.)
The frontline workers who became eligible Wednesday include an estimated 190,000 to 250,000 people, Beam said.
About 700,000 to one million more people are in phase 1B, including other frontline workers, such as postal service employees, clergy, public transit employees, and those who work in manufacturing. Phase 1C includes 1.3 to 1.7 million people, a broader list of essential workers that ranges from lawyers and financiers to people employed in housing construction and food service.
In Southeastern Pennsylvania, the state estimated 90% of people eligible in 1A who wanted the vaccine have been inoculated.
Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh said the county has 75,000 people left on its wait-list and is seeing 35% to 40% of people on its wait list decline appointments because they have already been vaccinated.
Meanwhile, the Bucks County commissioners said “we feel we are close to completing those in the 1A category.”
In the coming weeks, the number of retail pharmacies receiving vaccine from the federal government is set to expand and operate independent of the state. That infusion led the state to decide to back off its plan for mass vaccination clinics in every region.
Bucks, Delaware, Chester, and Montgomery Counties will have 42,000 shots earmarked weekly, to split among them. That’s what the health departments and county leaders had requested, telling the state Department of Health they already had the capacity to give those shots, and could do it in a way that would be more equitable for residents.
“We do want to be very firm in establishing our expectations,” Beam said. “These counties need to be able to move these vaccines as they have claimed they could, meaning both in pace and equity,”
“That’s what we’ve been asking for all along,” said State Rep. Frank Farry (R., Bucks). “Our counties are confident they have the infrastructure to be able to do this. They have plans for underserved populations; people can get them in proximity to where they live.”
The counties will each receive about 10,500 doses a week, something Montgomery County’s Arkoosh said would help the county get through the people remaining in 1A in about a month.
Officials in Bucks, Delaware, Chester, and Montgomery Counties said the influx of one-shot doses, along with the federal ramp-up of pharmacy vaccinations, would put the region in good shape to begin vaccinating new groups and reaching vulnerable populations, including people who are homeless or homebound.
“Our residents can now feel assured they will be able to get a vaccine without having to drive to a regional site,” the Chester County Commissioners said in a statement, noting they’d have more information on additional appointment availability once they got confirmation from the state on future dose allotments.
The Bucks County Commissioners said they would be opening another vaccination site supplied by J&J doses in the coming weeks. Delaware County will open 30,000 more appointments this week, officials said.
“I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I got the news today,” Arkoosh said. “As you know, we have had so many people so anxious to be vaccinated and looking to us for help, and we have conveyed in every way that we knew how that my constituents needed vaccines. It’s what my constituents have been demanding for weeks, and I’m pleased we will be able to finally serve them.”
Staff writer Jason Laughlin contributed to this article.