As questions about the suburban Philadelphia counties’ vaccine supply continue to roil the region, a growing number of area lawmakers are asking the state to add consumer demand to its list of criteria for determining how many doses it sends to each county.
Concerned that the region has received a disproportionately low share of doses compared with other counties, the commissioners of all four collar counties also called this week on the state to provide more detail about how it monitors vaccine providers to make sure shots are going only to people who are currently eligible.
“There is a tremendous demand for the vaccine in the four suburban Philadelphia counties,” said State Rep. Perry Warren, a Bucks County Democrat. “I ask for a bulk allocation of vaccines to Southeastern Pennsylvania to address the demand. The demand is a function of our residents having taken coronavirus seriously, having taken mitigation steps seriously. And part of the mitigation steps is getting the vaccine.”
Lawmakers and county officials sharply criticized the state Department of Health after it acknowledged the region had a vaccine undersupply but indicated it would not take steps to fix it. On Monday, amid shifting messages from the Health Department, officials called for more doses to be sent to the region, which has received fewer doses per capita since February began than any other region, Inquirer data analysis showed.
State health officials have insisted this week that the percentage of residents who have been vaccinated is the best measurement of how counties are faring in the rollout; by that mark, the collar counties meet or exceed the state average. But some local officials questioning that and other metrics used by the state argued that the statistic should instead measure the percentage of eligible residents — seniors, health-care workers, people with high-risk medical conditions, and others — who have been vaccinated.
State Rep. Todd Stephens, a Montgomery County Republican, asked the Department of Health to do so in a Jan. 21 letter, and was still asking the same question this week.
“We ought to be focused on the population that we’re trying to vaccinate,” he said. “Our seniors are struggling to get this vaccine.”
As of Tuesday, the Department of Health had not provided information requested by The Inquirer about vaccination rate by county, the volume of vaccine doses requested over time by providers in the collar counties, or whether any counties’ vaccine supplies are not currently meeting the state’s allocation index.
Across Pennsylvania, frontline health-care workers, residents and staff of long-term care facilities, people 65 and older, and those with high-risk health conditions are eligible. In 1B, a broader group of frontline workers, including all first responders, will be eligible to be vaccinated. (Philadelphia is distributing its vaccine separately from the state.)
Amid emphasis on equity, county officials have asked for more assurances from the state that no providers were giving doses to people who aren’t eligible when they feel their counties are still far from vaccinating everyone who needs it in 1A.
The elected leaders of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties called on acting Health Secretary Alison Beam on Monday to swiftly explain how vaccine providers will be monitored to ensure that none moves to vaccinating people who are eligible in 1B until all counties “have received sufficient vaccine to vaccinate their 1A population.”
Under an order signed by Beam in mid-February aimed at regulating providers, the state will withhold doses from any who are caught giving shots to people outside of the 1A group.
“We are not having counties jump into later phases,” Beam told lawmakers Sunday, “because of the massive amounts of not just consumer confusion but how that would just create inequity across the 66 counties.”
The Department of Health, however, does not monitor providers as they report inoculations. The reports sent by providers logging vaccinations don’t show recipients’ ages or indicate whether they were in 1A, said spokesperson Barry Ciccocioppo.
That means the Department of Health uses complaints from residents or information in news reports to enforce the order. It has not penalized any providers for vaccinating eligible people to date, Ciccocioppo said.
State Sen. Maria Collett, a Democrat who represents Bucks and Montgomery Counties, said the state should be monitoring providers and identifying problems if they arise.
“I don’t feel confident, necessarily, about their enforcement mechanisms with providers, and that’s troublesome to me,” Collett said. “I don’t sort of want here a ‘Hey, if we catch somebody participating in funny business after the fact we’ll really come down hard on them.’ I don’t have a lot of faith in that. … I’d like us to be more proactive. I think we have the ability to, based on what the Department of Health said on Sunday.”
Collett is also advocating for the Department of Health to stop allocating first doses to a county if the county completes 1A and send those doses to counties still working on 1A.
The entire state will move to 1B at the same time; counties cannot change phases early, the Department of Health has said. And demand among those currently eligible “isn’t slowing in any areas we’re aware of,” Ciccocioppo said.
“No provider is telling us that they don’t have enough people in 1A that want their appointments,” he said Tuesday.
The Department of Health has not said when the state might move into 1B; with millions in 1A and a limited vaccine supply, health officials have asked for patience.
But the demand remains high.
Collett, Warren, and State Rep. Craig Williams said the calls coming into their suburban offices have totaled nearly 2,000 since the rollout began.
State Rep. Tarah Toohil, a Luzerne County Republican, noted a large volume of comments coming to her office through social media last month, as well: “People reaching out on the internet like, ‘Please help my grandmother,’ ‘please help my friend who has a preexisting condition,’ ” she said.
And phones are ringing off the hook in doctors’ offices, too.
“Physicians have been flooded with messages by patients,” said Larry Ward, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American College of Physicians, in an interview late last month. “You can’t keep up with it.”