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Pennsylvania is limiting who administers the COVID-19 vaccine. Doctors’ groups say that’s a bad move.

Physician groups are "deeply troubled" by health department's shift in vaccine distribution

A vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine sits ready for use at the Main Line Health vaccination clinic inside the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, Pa. on February 10, 2021.
A vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine sits ready for use at the Main Line Health vaccination clinic inside the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, Pa. on February 10, 2021.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Physician groups say they are “deeply troubled” that the Pennsylvania Department of Health plans to remove primary care providers from the list of those permitted to administer the COVID-19 vaccine.

“This is a time when we need all hands on deck so we can get the majority of people vaccinated as quickly as we can,” Tracey Conti, a physician and president of the Pennsylvania Academy of Family Physicians, said Saturday night.

“When it comes to vaccine distribution, it’s not one size fits all,” she said. “This move may make it more difficult by reducing access and increasing disparity among our most vulnerable citizens.”

“If you want to make sure the vaccine gets to a broader scope of people, why would you limit who is distributing it?” Conti asked.

The protest from doctors’ groups comes after a news conference Friday. Answering a question from a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter, acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said that four groups would be tasked with distribution going forward: hospitals, federally qualified health centers, county health departments, and pharmacies. Beam said all have demonstrated they can “move quickly and effectively pushing the first dose in people’s arms.”

“With a limited number of vaccines, we need to make sure that we focus on the providers that are able to reach the communities quickly,” she said.

Beam said the state would narrow its vaccine provider network to between 200 and 300 providers that had demonstrated an ability to vaccinate people quickly. About 1,700 providers statewide have stepped up, wanting to be part of America’s biggest public health campaign in decades.

In a statement provided to The Inquirer on Saturday night, Beam clarified the intention behind the shift. The goal is to accelerate distribution to inoculate the most Pennsylvanians in the short term. “We must concentrate the vaccine among the providers who can move first doses as quickly as possible to protect Pennsylvanians.” Once that goal is reached, Beam said, more providers, including primary care physicians, will receive the vaccine for their patients.

The statement also said that this shift will not affect people who have received their first dose. They will be able to get the second vaccine from the same provider.

According to the DOH website, more than 1.5 million vaccine doses have been administered as of Feb. 13. In Philadelphia, which is counted separately, that number is slightly more than 200,000.

Primary care doctors worked successfully to vaccinate health-care workers, who are in the first phase, she said. But moving forward, the Health Department wants to home in on those four provider groups to inoculate large groups of people, Beam said.

“I understand how frustrating the current vaccine process can seem and we have heard from many Pennsylvanians that are struggling to schedule an appointment,” Beam said.

In a joint statement, the Pennsylvania Academy of Family Physicians, along with the Pennsylvania Osteopathic Medical Society, and the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American College of Physicians, expressed disappointment.

“The new order creates yet another hurdle for a demographic who is already struggling with navigating the vaccine distribution landscape,” the statement read.

Many people living in low-income neighborhoods do not have transportation to hospitals that could administer the vaccine, Conti said. They may have chronic diseases and be unable to stand in line at a large county health center.

Pharmacies may not be easily accessible either. “There are a lot of neighborhoods with a pharmacy desert,” she said.

Residents may, however, have a close and trusted relationship with their primary care doctor. For those who are leery of getting vaccinated, they may feel at ease if their doctor not only advises them to get it, but gives them the shot, she said.

“Why disrupt that relationship?” she asked.

“We understand the health department is trying to do the best thing,” Conti said. “We want to be able to help them with the plan to get everyone vaccinated. But you leave out a huge workforce by eliminating primary care.”