Acknowledging residents’ frustration about the pace and coordination of the coronavirus vaccine rollout, the new leader of Pennsylvania’s Health Department said Wednesday she hoped to improve its communication as the urgent, quick-changing conditions of the pandemic evolve and the country waits for more doses to become available.
“One of the key struggles throughout the response has been trying to communicate out knowledge that is coming so fast,” said Alison Beam, who was named acting health secretary last week.
In one of her first interviews since being nominated to replace former Health Secretary Rachel Levine, Beam declined to provide any specific plans for speeding up the vaccine rollout across the state, saying the very limited federal supply remains the sticking point. But she said the department hoped to “make inroads” on the efficiency of the distribution and predicted most Pennsylvanians would be able to get vaccinated in the “coming months.”
With 65% of the state’s first doses administered, Beam said the state was making significant progress, and said it was particularly focused on getting all nursing home residents inoculated. She also noted that the vaccine rollout began a little over a month ago.
She spoke to The Inquirer as the number of new cases and hospitalizations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and nationwide continued to decline, signaling the fall and winter surge might have passed. Twenty-eight states reported decreasing case numbers over the last two weeks, including Pennsylvania, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The trend is so good in New Jersey that Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday he may soon relax some public health restrictions.
Philadelphia School District leaders announced their plan to return the first public school students to classrooms in late February, with prekindergarten through second-grade students slated to attend two days a week.
There was also potential good news for other schools, hospitality-related businesses, and people struggling to pay rent or utility bills. Pennsylvania’s Senate unanimously approved a bill to distribute more than $900 million in aid, a proposal that still needs backing in the state House of Representatives. Most of the aid would come from the funds allocated in Congress’ most recent coronavirus recovery package.
Beam, whose nomination as secretary must be confirmed by the state Senate, said Pennsylvanians should be cautiously optimistic as the resurgence slows and vaccines arrive. But she also acknowledged the threat of the highly transmissible coronavirus variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, saying the state’s Health Department was closely monitoring its presence in Pennsylvania and the U.S.
A 30-year-old Montgomery County bartender became at least the third person in the Philadelphia region with a confirmed case of the variant, officials announced Wednesday, making it “quite likely that this more contagious variant is present” in the county, Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh said.
Spotlight on supply
Pennsylvania is slated to receive an additional 26,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine next week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, representing the 16% increase in supply planned by the Biden administration.
New Jersey’s shipment was set to increase by the same amount, CDC data showed, although Murphy said he expected the weekly allotment to increase by 30,000 doses, which would be a larger increase. “We are certainly optimistic about all the signs coming out of the White House,” he said. “We just need the doses to make our program run.”
Beam said the Pennsylvania Department of Health would push the federal government to get more vaccine.
The supply increase announced this week was good news, she said, but “still does not allow us to be close to meeting the level of demand.”
Gov. Tom Wolf suggested on Tuesday the state would improve its vaccine distribution process in spite of the limited supply.
“You always have to come back to the fact that there are 4 million people in need of over 8 million shots, and so far we’ve gotten about 1.5 million,” he said. “No matter what [distribution] system we have, that is the primary constraint that we’re operating under. Within that constraint, we want to do the best job we possibly can.”
Pennsylvania reported 5,874 newly confirmed virus cases on Wednesday. It reported 222 deaths, the fourth time in a week the state has recorded more than 200 deaths in one day. Data lags, however, mean deaths do not necessarily occur when they are reported. As of Saturday, 4,548 deaths had been reported in January, but more than a third had occurred in 2020.
New Jersey reported 3,950 newly confirmed cases and 107 deaths.
The state is also working with vaccine providers seeking to streamline the process for second doses, which has frustrated some residents who have received their first shots but have not been given appointments for the second. Anyone who got a first dose but is not scheduled for a second should contact the site where they were vaccinated, said Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli.
Starting Sunday, New Jersey’s vaccine hotline can also help residents make appointments to get second doses of the vaccine. The line is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week at 855-568-0545. Since vaccine supplies are still limited, the call center is currently only able to help residents get preregistered and cannot schedule appointments for first doses.
‘Everyone will be boarded’
As Levine had done for weeks, Beam reiterated the need for patience, saying she wanted the public to understand the vaccine process.
“At this stage of the game, it does feel frustrating to folks,” she said. “This is a lot like boarding a plane … Before you even get to phase one, you actually have those boarded that are elderly or have special needs … And then you have everyone line up that’s part of boarding class one, and then you have to get through that line. And then you have everyone line up that’s part of boarding class two.”
She added: “There is no doubt that you get everyone boarded. And everyone will be boarded in Pennsylvania.”
Asked how Pennsylvania would address confusion among residents, including frustration caused by the lack of a centralized scheduling system, Beam said that states using such registries have reported the same challenges as Pennsylvania.
“We are all facing the same limiting factor, which is not enough vaccines,” Beam said of the states. “When we have that as a continuous struggle, I don’t know that a central registry is what remedies that. I think rather, what we have to be focusing on is allowing folks to understand that this is a process by which we have to get folks vaccinated first that are most at risk.”
Beam, 34, was previously Wolf’s deputy chief of staff. In that role, she worked with all the state’s health-related agencies as well as on the administration’s coronavirus response. She also ensured the Department of Health and the governor’s office were in lockstep, she said.
“Secretary Levine and the governor’s relationship was fantastic throughout that, and I look forward to hopefully continuing a similar dynamic,” she said.
She praised the Department of Health’s science- and data-driven approach to confronting the pandemic and pledged that would continue under her leadership; she also said the department would keep working to remedy health-care inequities that have been highlighted by the pandemic.
Beam said she, her husband, and two children have been highly cautious during the pandemic. She said some of their family members have died of COVID-19.
“[It] makes this mission all the more compelling,” she said, “when you have family members or loved ones that you know without the pandemic would’ve been at holidays this past year.”
Staff writers Erin McCarthy and Anthony R. Wood contributed to this article, along with graphics editor John Duchneskie and the Associated Press.