The Pennsylvania Department of Health on Friday outlined several steps to improve the state’s coronavirus vaccine rollout, including ordering providers to administer at least 80% of their first doses within seven days of receiving them and sharply cutting the number of providers to get more shots to those able to quickly inoculate the most people.
All vaccine providers will also be required to let patients make appointments over the phone and schedule second shots when providing the first, according to orders signed by Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam and Gov. Tom Wolf.
The orders aim to address widely reported problems with the rollout — such as a lack of phone scheduling, the limited doses being spread too thinly among many providers, and the pace of distribution — that Beam, Wolf, and health department spokespeople have declined to specifically address the last few weeks. State lawmakers and county officials have pushed the health department for more answers in recent days.
Beam on Friday acknowledged that people were frustrated with the vaccine process in Pennsylvania, which has the commonwealth ranking low for the percentage of people vaccinated compared to other states.
“Pennsylvanians demand better of us. And we will do better,” she said. “Today’s action is really a plan for communicating how we are going to adjust our strategy and pivot at the critical time in this crisis.”
As of Friday, 66% of the 2.6 million total doses sent to Pennsylvania had been administered. Of its first doses, 80% had been given out by hospitals, pharmacies, counties, and other providers. New Jersey had administered 70% of its nearly 1.8 million shots, including 84% of first doses.
Other states, including New Jersey, have set up mass vaccination clinics, centralized registration systems, or are vaccinating the population faster, although Pennsylvania ranks high in the number of people who have gotten a shot, according to a Washington Post tracker.
New Jersey, which is already running six mass clinics, will next week launch the first of 10 vaccination sites at churches and community centers, state health officials said Friday. As CVS and Rite Aid pharmacies in the state received doses from the federal government, appointments there filled instantly.
The number of new coronavirus cases in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey remained steady Friday. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy lifted restrictions on youth sporting events, allowing two parents or guardians per player to attend practice and competitions.
Pennsylvania said it would temporarily cut the number of doses to vaccine providers who flout the state’s rules, including those who do not report patient data to the state within 24 hours or vaccinate people who aren’t yet eligible for the shot. Providers could also be suspended. But the state will not hold back second doses from any providers as a penalty and can guarantee second doses for everyone who needs one.
Beam said the plan to cut back on the number of vaccine providers — from 1,700 to between 200 and 300 — would take time to implement. She did not specify exactly how the state would whittle the list or whether the move would take smaller pharmacies out of the distribution process.
And Beam said the state was not pursuing other fixes that have been requested by counties or residents, such as providing a better appointment scheduling system or increasing the vaccine allotment for counties running their own mass clinics, though she noted the process was evolving and “ever improving.”
“Counties will still be competing with independent pharmacies for doses, and there’s still an equity issue for the people who’ve signed up with the county when the pharmacies aren’t required to go by any sort of list,” said State Sen. Maria Collett (D., Bucks and Montgomery), who was among a group of Senate Democrats who outlined questions and concerns about vaccine distribution in a letter sent Friday to Beam.
Legislators from Chester County asked Beam in their own letter this week to increase the supply to that county, which they said has mass vaccination sites “at the ready to serve all geographic areas of our community” but has not “received the necessary supply to execute these plans.”
Some have also suggested a centralized registration system would improve the process, which currently requires eligible people to call multiple facilities and constantly refresh websites. Beam again said the state would not create one, saying that vaccine providers — she didn’t say which ones — have told the state they prefer using their own systems.
The state does plan to open mass clinics after vaccine supply increases.
Pennsylvania also will not move teachers to the 1A vaccination group — those currently eligible for shots — despite a request from Pennsylvania’s largest teachers’ union and another one Friday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying it would “strongly encourage states to prioritize teachers and other school staff.”
Teachers remain in the next eligible group, dubbed 1B, where the original federal guidance placed educators. The commonwealth has not provided a timeline for when people in 1B, which includes most frontline essential workers, can register for shots.
Still, health officials believe Pennsylvania will be able to open vaccinations to the general public by the summer, Beam said, citing the Biden administration’s new estimate that it will have enough supply to vaccinate 300 million Americans by the end of July.
“We are working to get as much vaccine as we can into the arms of Pennsylvanians,” she said, “and we will continue to do more.”
Staff writers Allison Steele and Maddie Hanna and graphics editor John Duchneskie contributed to this article.