In response to pressure from a column I’d published over the weekend about an alarming disparity in COVID-19 vaccine distribution across the suburbs of Philadelphia, state officials on Monday admitted to members of Congress that an error was made and that they would rectify things by immediately sending more doses, U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon told me soon after her call with acting Health Secretary Alison Beam.
“Thank you so much for your article,” said Scanlon, whose district includes hard-hit Delaware County and portions of Philadelphia, before laying out the breaking news for me. “It helped us get something done. We [had] been begging for answers and not getting them.”
Scanlon said she was told that Delaware County, at the least, would be receiving an immediate boost in an unspecified number of doses so that it would match the statewide average based on its need. She said she was told the state had already begun to do this in the past few days.
Separately, Scanlon, a Democrat, said she was eager to see federal officials deliver on a request she made last week for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to establish a vaccine pipeline in the suburbs just as it has begun to do in select cities including Philadelphia.
Officials offered lawmakers no specific details about their pledge to boost the supply of vaccine and fix things in the suburbs. Presumably, the additional doses will flow through the patchwork of pharmacies, health-care providers, and county sites already putting shots into arms. The Health Department declined repeated requests for comment of any kind for this column. Still unknown was what had caused the undersupply and how much extra vaccine was being sent to the counties.
Delaware County Council Vice Chair Monica Taylor said she’d learned the news from Scanlon and was “cautiously optimistic” but had heard nothing from the Health Department. Taylor said the county already had been scheduled to receive more doses of Pfizer vaccine in the next week since it finalized an arrangement to allow for its cold storage.
“This was the first time that the state admitted that there was an issue here,” Taylor told me Monday night. “That’s promising. We’ll take them at their word and hope for the best and continue to push on it.”
Monday’s news had come to me in a call from Scanlon just minutes after she and other members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation ended a telephone briefing with the Department of Health that morning.
Two other local U.S. House members shared similar accounts of the briefing once I reached them hours later by phone.
“Thank you for your reporting,” U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean said before even answering my first question. The Montgomery County Democrat said she had cited in her questioning of Secretary Beam my published data analysis that, alarmingly, showed suburbia being shortchanged in vaccine doses compared to other counties in Pennsylvania. “I cited your article, frankly.”
Chester County U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan capped her own recounting of the vaccine briefing to me with, before we hung up from a midafternoon phone interview: “Thank you for bulldogging this.”
The topic of suburban vaccine inequities, as highlighted in my column over the weekend, was of great concern to all three in the meeting with Beam.
Delaware County, with more than half a million residents and a high poverty rate, ranked 53rd out of 66 counties in terms of doses by population, my analysis with an Inquirer colleague had found. Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties also ranked alarmingly low, though not nearly as poorly as Delaware County, where one in 10 people were living in poverty before the pandemic.
“As you can imagine,” Scanlon told me, “we had a few questions. What we heard was that they had started doing a deep dive, which accelerated over the weekend, on equity of distribution.”
My column was based on an Inquirer analysis of doses received per 100,000 people per county across the state. Based on state Health Department data, we found disturbing math. I learned that local elected officials had done a similar data crunch in early February but had failed to get sufficient answers or action from the state.
That apparently was not the case on Monday morning. Acting Secretary Beam reportedly responded to the pointed questioning of federal lawmakers with a partial explanation of what had gone wrong, and action. However, specifics about how much would be sent or through what channels were not shared.
“They basically confirmed that, yes, the collar counties — particularly Delaware and Montgomery County — had not received their equitable share using the criteria that they are using,” Scanlon told me. “They conceded that in the past we have not received our proportionate share and that … we’re going to get extra to bring us up to the state average.”
The Department of Health responded to multiple requests for comment about Monday’s meeting with a promise, by email, of a response “as soon as we can ahead of the end of the day,” wrote spokeswoman Maggi Barton.
Agency spokesman Barry Ciccocioppo said in an email to me Friday that an internal analysis of the county-by-county vaccine distribution data was being done and would be shared with me this week. He reiterated that late Monday night.
Scanlon and the others were not given a comprehensive explanation for why so fewer doses had made their way to a suburban swath of 2.5 million residents. Only that something had gone slightly haywire.
“We got a commitment for a recognition that we were not equitably distributed to in the collar counties,” Dean said. “They said that they would use the next several weeks … driving more vaccine to these counties that were not equitably distributed to.”
They and other local suburban elected officials had been contending for weeks with calls and notes from frustrated constituents asking why the fragmented vaccine distribution process just outside Philadelphia was unwieldy and apparently under-supplied.
I asked Scanlon if she had, by chance, heard from President Joe Biden about this. I had, in my piece, urged him to step in with federal help.
She said she had not heard from the president directly. But she sent the Biden administration a letter last week asking that the White House establish a Federal Emergency Management Agency vaccination site and vaccine supply pipeline in the suburbs just as it was now starting to do in cities.
“I was home for about 36 hours and I’m not sure that I set foot outside my house without having conversations with neighbors people in the grocery stores,” Scanlon said by phone from her car. She said she was driving to Washington. “People are desperate for the vaccine. We’ve got to get it out as quickly as possible. I know the Biden administration has put on steroids the federal response but there can’t be any delays.”
In another sign of restlessness with the way things have unfolded under Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, Scanlon, Houlahan, and Dean joined with U.S. Rep. Susan Wild of the Allentown area on Monday to send their fellow Democratic governor a letter urging a speedup and retooling of the vaccine rollout.
“This could include utilizing the National Guard — with their strong capacity for logistics — or working with the Federal government to open mass vaccination opportunities as more doses become available,” wrote Houlahan, Scanlon, Dean, and U.S. Rep. Susan Wild of the Allentown area. “We also ask that you explore adopting best practices from other states and jurisdictions that might speed up vaccine deployment.”