The Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted Wednesday to require the Department of Health to retool its coronavirus vaccine rollout and let Philadelphia’s suburbs run their own mass clinics.
The bill would require the Department of Health to detail plans for providing “sufficient doses” of vaccine to counties that have requested more doses, as the city’s collar counties have done. And it would kill the state’s plan to set up two Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency mass vaccination clinics in the Southeast, instead allowing county health departments to distribute the shots.
Even if passed by the state Senate, it’s unlikely that Gov. Tom Wolf will sign the measure into law.
Still the 135-65 vote was a rebuke of his administration and a stinging statement about lawmakers’ perception of the Department of Health’s transparency and plan to handle the regional distribution of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine. The bill drew wide geographic and bipartisan support in the House after weeks of building frustration among state lawmakers — along with other local officials and members of Congress — over the state’s approach to the vaccine rollout.
“We need the governor and the Department of Health to understand that this is not a partisan issue,” said Rep. Jennifer O’Mara (D., Delaware), chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus’ Southeast delegation. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. COVID-19 impacts all of us. This is a life-and-death issue. That’s the message we sent together today.”
Through Wednesday, more than three million people in Pennsylvania, or nearly a third of the eligible population, had received at least one dose of the vaccine. While other states have expanded their eligibility to younger adults or even all adults, Pennsylvania is still restricting shots to health-care workers, nursing home residents and staff, people 65 and older, those with high-risk conditions, and teachers and other school staff.
Officials and lawmakers around Philadelphia have complained that the state has unfairly distributed vaccines, forcing suburbanites in the most densely populated region to drive hours to other counties to get shots, disadvantaging the most vulnerable populations. (The Department of Health strongly denies that the rollout has been geographically inequitable.)
That frustration was exacerbated Wednesday when leaders from Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties said state officials told them the number of Johnson & Johnson doses flowing into Pennsylvania beginning next week would be far fewer than the 200,000 per week they had been expecting.
A Department of Health spokesperson confirmed Pennsylvania would be receiving only 66,400 J&J doses next week, but noted it had gotten 13,000 shots each of the last two weeks.
“Vaccine distributions from the federal government can fluctuate, but we do not anticipate any disruptions in our mission of getting shots into arms,” the spokesperson said in a statement, defending the state’s rollout and reiterating that limited supply from the federal government was the biggest obstacle. “Mass vaccination sites and vaccinations for special population are still moving forward.”
The bill passed Wednesday underscored the clash this month between the Department of Health and Southeastern counties over the vaccine supply and mass clinics. Lawmakers from both parties and across the state supported the amendment that would give Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties control over their mass clinics.
“In the absence of a cohesive plan from the administration, we are putting forward this initiative as a legislature … to say our counties are ready to go,” said State Rep. John Lawrence (R., Chester and Lancaster), who introduced the bill. “They are ready to do this tomorrow; they [were] ready to do it a month ago. Why are they being ignored by the Wolf administration?”
The bill won support of more than two-thirds of House members, leaving open the possibility that the GOP-led House could override a veto by Wolf, a Democrat. First, however, it must pass the Senate, which also is Republican-controlled.
The bill also targets the Department of Health’s public reporting of vaccine information, reflecting ongoing complaints from lawmakers about a lack of transparency. It comes two weeks after Southeastern Pennsylvania lawmakers repeatedly requested more data on the rollout. (The state added some additional data to its website last week, saying it was providing “unprecedented” transparency.)
“If you try to call [the Department of Health] and get a question answered, it’s impossible,” said State Rep. Meghan Schroeder (R., Bucks), who introduced the amendment for the county-run mass clinics. “The accountability and transparency piece for the website is really important.”
The legislation would also immediately expand the number of people — at least through next year — who are authorized to administer coronavirus vaccines in the commonwealth, falling in line with a directive from President Joe Biden earlier this month.
Midwives, paramedics, EMTs, physician assistants, respiratory therapists, veterinarians, dentists, podiatrists, and optometrists would be among those eligible to give shots. So would retired doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers whose medical licenses have expired or lapsed in good standing over the last five years. Medical, nursing, and pharmacy students would also be eligible, with proper training and under the supervision of a professional.
Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said last week that the state wanted to distribute the Johnson & Johnson vaccine through its own clinics and offered to put two PEMA clinics in the Southeast instead of one. The counties proposed sites at Cheyney University and the Montgomery Mall, but no plans have been solidified, and county leaders said they remained unhappy with the concept.
Among other reasons, they cited worries about accessibility and equity if there were just one or two mass sites for the region.
The amendments passed under the bill Wednesday would allow Philadelphia’s collar counties to distribute vaccine at their own clinics, choose their own locations, and continue using their registration and scheduling systems, through which tens of thousands of residents have already signed up. It would also require the state to send more doses to the collar counties, which say they have been shortchanged.
“We’ve been asking for these shots to go to our counties,” State Rep. Frank Farry (R., Bucks) said, “and we’re now in a position where we’re actually having to take legislative action.”
On both sides of the aisle, lawmakers said they were encouraged to see the bill get traction.
“I’m hopeful that we don’t have to move any more legislation and we’ll see some of the practices that are being employed by our neighbors in New Jersey and Delaware and West Virginia” implemented in Pennsylvania, Lawrence said. “There’s nothing stopping the governor from coming out today and saying, ‘Look, we’re going to send the vaccines to the health departments.’”
State Rep. Perry Warren, a Bucks County Democrat, said the state and Health Department “have already moved in the direction of recognizing the demand for doses in the Southeast, and this legislation will affirm it.”
Others were less optimistic, indicating more might need to be done.
“I’ll work with all of my colleagues from across the state to improve the efficiency of Pennsylvania’s vaccine rollout and access,” State Rep. Chris Quinn (R., Delaware) said in a statement. “However, it’s possible the process has been so badly botched by the state Department of Health that it can only be fixed by a dramatic increase in vaccine supply from the federal government.”