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Despite discontent in Harrisburg, Wolf says Pa. vaccine rollout is going well

“There really shouldn’t be much of an incentive to go anywhere else” outside the state to get vaccinated, the governor said.

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia in September.
Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia in September.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Gov. Tom Wolf praised Pennsylvania’s vaccine rollout Thursday, noting the state has moved up in national rankings to be 15th in the percentage of residents who have gotten at least one shot, a dramatic improvement from previous months. His administration announced steps to help some vaccine providers get all remaining residents in phase 1A scheduled for appointments before the month ends.

Speaking the day after the Pennsylvania House passed a bill that amounted to a bipartisan rebuke of the Department of Health’s management of certain aspects of the rollout, Wolf said he did not think Pennsylvania could have done a better job given the limited federal vaccine supply.

He did not acknowledge the bill or complaints about the rollout by state lawmakers and county officials that have become near-constant in recent weeks, particularly in the Southeast. And he dismissed reports of people traveling out of state to get shots, saying he didn’t think residents needed to leave the state to find appointments.

”The best thing we can really do is make sure we’re doing a better job than any other state so that people don’t feel the need to go anywhere else,” Wolf said. “There really shouldn’t be much of an incentive to go anywhere else.”

This week, Pennsylvania rose from 30th to 17th in the nation for the number of people who received first shots, but prior to that had consistently ranked in the bottom half. Residents have reported frustration with the state’s decentralized rollout for months, and lawmakers and local officials have criticized the Department of Health’s approach. New Jersey, which has a more centralized system, has in contrast consistently ranked in the top 10 among states.

Still, Pennsylvania ranks above average in percentage of residents with first doses, and is on par with the national average in terms of overall vaccinations given.

» READ MORE: New Jersey’s vaccine rollout is mostly working. In Pennsylvania, it’s more complicated.

Wolf indicated Thursday the state might move straight to opening eligibility to all adults by May 1, as President Joe Biden directed, and skip over phases 1B and 1C, which include different tiers of essential workers.

Asked when the state would move to 1B, the governor said Biden’s plan “sort of throws out the whole 1A, 1B, 1C thing.”

“The goal should be to get to that point as quickly as possible so it’s open to everybody,” Wolf added. “In a perfect world, that will be the next phase.”

The commonwealth will get another boost from federal funding that is set to come to 42 community health centers in Pennsylvania for coronavirus vaccination and services for vulnerable groups, the Biden administration announced Thursday. More than $150 million in American Rescue Plan funding will be awarded to the centers starting in April for expanding vaccination, testing, and treatment in a bid to increase access to the vaccine among “hard-hit populations,” the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said.

» READ MORE: Biden commits $10 billion to close racial and other gaps in vaccine coverage

As the state nears its March 31 deadline for having appointments scheduled for every 1A resident who wants a shot, the Wolf administration announced that providers were required to make those appointments, and that any who say they have no available appointments may be subject to enforcement. Providers could see their first doses cut off if they don’t comply, a Department of Health spokesperson said. Consumers can report to the department if they are denied an appointment, he added.

The Department of Health also plans to have all providers coordinate with their local Area Agency on Aging and Medical Assistance Managed Care Organizations in order to get the appointments scheduled quickly. Both measures were laid out in an amended order signed by acting Health Secretary Alison Beam, who said the collaborative effort will assist Pennsylvania’s two million seniors.

“We continue to hear from seniors and those with certain medical conditions who are eligible to be vaccinated in Phase 1A that they are still struggling to sign up to get vaccinated,” she said in a statement.

Providers generally don’t make appointments until they know how many vaccine doses they’re receiving, and although the Wolf administration has indicated the state will have enough supply to allow all the appointments to be scheduled by the end of March, it was not clear whether providers were being asked to book appointments before knowing what exactly their deliveries will be.

“The Department of Health has notified the providers that they will be receiving at least the same number of doses going forward,” a spokesperson said, “so that they know they can schedule at least that many appointments until they have scheduled appointments for everyone who has requested one.”

Beam’s order indicates providers should schedule these appointments “regardless of how far in the future” (the collar counties have said it could be months), while Wolf said appointments should be scheduled within a “reasonable” time frame — “a couple weeks.”

A spokesperson for the governor said the legislature had undermined the state’s bipartisan COVID-19 task force by passing the House bill Wednesday, saying it was “extremely discouraging.” The bill would require the Department of Health to allow Philadelphia’s collar counties to distribute doses earmarked for state-run mass clinics and require the state to provide plans for increasing doses to counties that have asked for more, among other measures.

“The administration is committed to vaccinating Pennsylvanians as safely and quickly as possible,” a spokesperson said, “and opposes any legislation that would dampen our abilities to do just that.”

» READ MORE: Pa. House passes bill to let Philly suburbs run their own mass vaccine clinics, a bipartisan rebuke of the state’s rollout

She said the administration was monitoring the legislation and would review it if it reaches the governor’s desk. The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to discuss the bill.

At his news briefing, Wolf again defended the state’s rollout, including its ability to get shots into the arms of the people in the most vulnerable 65-and-older population, and reiterated that the federal vaccine supply is the state’s biggest limiting factor.

“We’re doing a great job,” Wolf said. “We are making real, real progress.”