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A Pa. lawmaker helped hundreds of seniors get COVID-19 vaccines, but not everyone says that’s fair

A Montgomery County state rep's efforts to help constituents get vaccinated has raised questions about the role of legislators in the inoculation process.

State Rep. Todd Stephens talks with restaurant owners about COVID19 restrictions outside of Iron Abbey in Horsham, Pa. on Thursday, July 16, 2020.
State Rep. Todd Stephens talks with restaurant owners about COVID19 restrictions outside of Iron Abbey in Horsham, Pa. on Thursday, July 16, 2020.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

As hundreds of thousands of their peers scrambled to be vaccinated against COVID-19, about 700 seniors at the Village of Neshaminy Falls this month found themselves with enviable access to doses.

They received help registering and on Feb. 5 and 11, their North Wales development’s clubhouse hosted vaccination clinics, staff there said.

Instrumental to the clinics was Todd Stephens, the Republican state representative for the community, who described the effort as “a huge undertaking.”

“His office handled all the registration,” said Amy Grzywinski, community manager for the 55-and-older mobile-home development. “They set up appointments for everybody. They really worked around the clock to get everybody registered.”

His staff also put informational fliers in residents’ mailboxes.

Stephens became involved after residents and management at the development called his office, desperate to find vaccine doses. He put the development in touch with an owner of Wellness Pharmacy, who had contacted Stephens seeking ways to get doses to vulnerable populations.

Montgomery County officials contending with a waiting list of tens of thousands of people were frustrated to learn about the clinic. The seniors were eligible to be vaccinated, said the pharmacist who administered the shots, noting that he checked birth dates to ensure everyone was 65 or older. What rankles some officials, though, is that Stephens facilitated a clinic that amounted to exclusive vaccine access for one group of constituents while so many others are waiting.

“That is something in my opinion that really causes a lot of mistrust with the rollout,” said State Sen. Maria Collett, a Democrat who also represents the area. “I don’t blame Rep. Stephens for wanting to help. There has to be a more effective and equitable way of doing it.”

Stephens sees it differently.

“This is a community that isn’t active on social media or with email or things like that, so my staff works really hard to make sure that underserved community that isn’t as tech savvy was going to be able to access these services,” he said.

Stephens’ office is near the Village of Neshaminy Falls. Both the office and the development are in a Democratic-leaning part of Stephens’ district that voted for his opponent in 2020.

Legislators step in

After 10 years as a state representative, Stephens said he’s uniquely suited to identify communities in his district that could be left behind in the vaccine rollout, something the county Health Department recognized when it reached out to legislators in January to ask for their help registering people, particularly seniors, for the county’s waiting list.

“They don’t use Google,” Stephens said of the Village of Neshaminy Falls’ residents. “They come to my office to say, ‘Hey, can you help me find a good plumber.’ You develop familiarity with folks you represent over a period of time.”

Jason Gottesman, press secretary for the state House majority leader, said other legislators are in the process of helping to establish clinics because Pennsylvania’s vaccine rollout has been so chaotic. The state ranks as one of the worst in the nation at quickly getting its vaccine allocation into arms.

“In the absence of other reliable vaccine deployment infrastructure,” Gottesman said, “people are answering the call to do their part to connect eligible Pennsylvanians with available supply, state lawmakers included.”

Democrats, too, have been active.

“The members regularly meet with the Department of Health on its plan and progress,” said Senate Democratic Party spokesperson Brittany Crampsie, “and make connections with constituents to health-care providers every day.”

» READ MORE: Montco, Chesco, and other counties got thousands fewer vaccine doses than expected this week

The confusion surrounding the vaccine rollout, a system that particularly disadvantages people without internet access or computer savvy, has left thousands turning to legislators for help.

“When you ask people, especially who are new to the country, their only interaction is between me or my team,” said Jared Solomon, a Democrat who represents Northeast Philadelphia, an immigrant-heavy part of the city. “That’s government for them.”

Stephens has heard from numerous constituents shocked they couldn’t set up a vaccination appointment with the county by phone. About 50% of all calls Collett’s office receives each day are related to vaccination, she said.

“That is something that our office, typically, ordinarily wouldn’t have been involved in,” Collett said, “had there not been challenges in the ways departments of health have handled dissemination.”

Collett, a former nurse, gave injections at an adult day center in Chalfont last week but didn’t have a part in organizing the clinic, she said. Her staff has provided constituents with information but hasn’t directly registered people, she said. She is also lobbying the state for a more transparent vaccination process.

The House unanimously passed a bill to allow the National Guard to establish vaccination clinics statewide. Even if it passes the Senate, however, the Guard’s usefulness will be limited as long as vaccine demand exceeds supply, Collett said.

Stephens took action due to frustration over Montco’s vaccine allocation from the state, which sent the densely populated county just 1,000 doses in the first week of February.

“I think the most important thing is for the department to retool that distribution formula so that Montgomery County is getting a larger share of doses,” Stephens said.

Pharmacies only have to provide vaccination plans to the state for approval, and don’t need to coordinate with county health departments in Pennsylvania. But any such clinic should serve people in the 1A category, said Kelly Cofrancisco, a county spokesperson, “especially when we have 160,000 people on our vaccine preregistration list.”

» READ MORE: Philly residents have to go online to sign up for the coronavirus vaccine. But what about people who can’t?

Pharmacies are arranging clinics for at-risk groups with or without legislators’ help, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health said, and small community clinics for underserved people are a priority until larger supplies of vaccine are available.

“The administration is always looking for ways to partner with the legislature, and we are open to productive input and collaboration that will help Pennsylvanians,” state spokesperson Maggi Barton said.

Collett said she is happy the residents of the Neshaminy Falls community got their vaccinations. But, “there were many communities in my district who didn’t have the luxury of someone coming and setting up in their community center.”

David Sie, the owner of Wellness Pharmacy, said his business reached out to Stephens’ office because he feared too many people who should get shots couldn’t manage the digital registration system that most providers are using.

His pharmacy, which last month was sought to participate in an aborted effort to vaccinate teachers from a private school, is just half a mile from the Village of Neshaminy Falls, which he said isn’t as affluent as some of its neighbors. He recognized there could be the appearance that Stephens was favoring his constituents, but that wasn’t a factor for him.

“I thought, this is the right population we want to help,” he said. “They’re not upper class, they’re not a well-to-do school or anything.”

Stephens doesn’t understand why people would balk at 700 eligible seniors getting vaccinated.

“These are folks who would not be able to register online,” he said, “and they wouldn’t be able to get over to Norristown High School [where the county has hosted clinics], nor stand in a long line.”

Staff writer Jonathan Lai and Spotlight PA reporter Cynthia Fernandez contributed to this article.