It was a lightning-fast opening, but a pandemic vaccine distribution maneuver that, with better state planning, might not have required the triage treatment at all.
Amid an unexpected COVID-19 Moderna vaccine supply disruption at the state level last month in Pennsylvania, Delaware County and Penn Medicine officials hatched and opened a vaccine clinic in just five days’ time. It now administers a modest 2,000 doses a week.
The fact that county and private health system officials hustled as a SWAT team, against the backdrop of a sputtering and ever-changing state-led vaccine rollout across suburban Philadelphia, to open the joint vaccine outpost in Radnor is commendable. Less impressive is the catch-as-catch-can approach from Harrisburg that has left locals to scrap amid the state’s disjointed vaccine distribution strategy.
Why, in so critical a location as the Main Line border between Delaware and Montgomery Counties, whose combined population of 1.3 million is nearly equal to all of Philadelphia’s, was a last-minute effort like this needed at all? Why, several months into a vaccine rollout for which state officials had had months to prepare, was this the way things were getting done on the ground?
Harrisburg’s decision to disregard long-planned county distribution networks for the coronavirus pandemic — something I reported about a few days ago — is playing no small role in the cacophony of the suburban rollout that so many frustrated Inquirer readers have written to me about.
“We in Delaware County have had to be fairly creative and agile,” Councilman Kevin Madden explained. Democrats like him took control of the county only months before the pandemic struck. Republican predecessors had failed to ever form a health department. The Penn Radnor collaboration, he said, “was another example where we had to think about partnerships to help us deal with changing [pandemic] circumstances.”
Order and transparency have not been hallmarks of the state’s vaccine distribution strategy in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties. An apparent undersupply by the state to this area of 2.5 million Pennsylvanians as recently as a month ago unleashed a fury of angst between Harrisburg and southeastern elected officials advocating for a fix.
That intensified on Thursday when Gov. Tom Wolf’s Health Department accused county-area officials of “wasting precious time” by resisting the state’s latest on-the-fly idea: what Wolf said would be a single mass vaccination site to be shared by all four massive counties.
Working with a four-member legislative task force assembled only a matter of weeks ago, the governor proposed the mass site a week or so ago even as local officials insisted that what they really needed was more vaccine to come directly to them. Period.
Why, after all, hadn’t Pennsylvania assembled or launched such a site one or two months ago? Gov. Phil Murphy in New Jersey announced three mass locations for South Jersey alone, did so in December, and even had the real estate selected at the time.
It may be some consolation that Wolf on Friday announced he would be giving the unsatisfied suburbs two such sites, to be shared by all four. It’s a better option than one. But still, what to make of this inexplicable improv act continuing to unfold in a region dense with people and commerce just beyond one of the nation’s largest cities?
“Pennsylvania ranks second in the nation for the number of COVID-19 vaccines administered per 100,000 people over the past week,” the department said. “Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam touted this as a clear signal that Pennsylvania is making significant progress after a rocky start to its vaccination campaign.”
Rocky. Even the state must now realize how bad things look in suburbia.
The perplexing disregard by Wolf to distribute vaccines through long-ago agreed-upon county-level “medical countermeasures” plans set the stage for the scramble now upon us. The Penn Radnor site got stitched together like a battlefield wound in part because of the chaotic distribution patchwork set in motion by his administration.
The county and Penn huddled after Delco, which had been receiving modest amounts of Moderna vaccine for a few of its own sites, suddenly found itself with a shortage in late February. Pennsylvania health officials announced 100,000 second doses of Moderna had been wrongly administered as first doses.
The county immediately had to create the capacity to absorb harder-to-store Pfizer vaccine, or its supply would dry up. The county connected with the Philadelphia-based health system affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania. Penn Medicine had medical and surgical space at a new complex near I-476 in Radnor, plus a high-level freezer in the city to lend out.
“It was great. Both teams, we met,” said Delaware County COVID Director Rosemarie Halt. “I brought my logistics, operations and clinical staff out. We did a walk-through. We developed a logistics plan very quickly. And part of this was, [the county] had already run several sites so far and we knew what it looked like. ... Both teams worked really hard.”
The state quickly approved the county’s quick-turnaround request authorizing the collaboration.
“We needed a minus-70 [degrees] freezer at Radnor to be able to receive the Pfizer vaccine,” said Deborah A. Driscoll, senior vice president for clinical practices at the University of Pennsylvania, in a Thursday interview. “We moved a freezer from downtown out to Radnor and set it up. And the next day the vaccine arrived, and we were able to get started.”
The site opened Feb. 26. It now vaccinates about 2,000 people a week — a relative drop in the bucket.
But anything was better than nothing in a county that, only a few weeks ago, was among the most undersupplied, per capita, among 66 Pennsylvania counties as reflected in an Inquirer analysis of vaccine distribution records from the state Health Department.
In New Jersey, by contrast, a mega site that Murphy opened earlier this year in Burlington County has given out more than 100,000 Pfizer doses from a shopping mall site. That’s 4,500 doses a day. A Camden County mini-mega site in Blackwood surpassed 51,000 doses of various vaccines a few days ago.
Everyone is scrambling, to some extent. There is frustration everywhere. But in Southeastern Pennsylvania, it seems things have been tougher than they had to be. Let’s hope that’s about to change.