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Messy suburban vaccine rollout: Does the Pa. Health Department have control of this situation or not? | Maria Panaritis

You would think 12 months into the coronavirus pandemic there would be a better system for getting COVID-19 vaccine shots into millions of Pennsylvania suburbanites.

Pa. COVID-19 Task Force member and State Senator Art Haywood of Montgomery County and Philadelphia speaks at a news conference announcing a new vaccine site at a Rite Aid store on Ogontz Avenue March 5th, 2021.
Pa. COVID-19 Task Force member and State Senator Art Haywood of Montgomery County and Philadelphia speaks at a news conference announcing a new vaccine site at a Rite Aid store on Ogontz Avenue March 5th, 2021.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Where are the answers? Where is the fix? Where is the urgency?

These are COVID-19 vaccine questions from hundreds of residents across suburban Philadelphia who clogged my email inbox and voicemail with gripes over the last week. These also are questions consuming Democratic and Republican lawmakers across the suburban Philadelphia counties where state Health Department data show — without explanation from Harrisburg — an alarming undersupply of vaccine doses to Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties week after week now.

Since first reporting the disparities a week ago, I have sought answers and the Health Department has not so much as gotten on the phone with me even once. Only emails offering no details and asking for time. On Monday, congressional representatives demanded answers and said they secured from acting Secretary Alison Beam an admission that there had been an undersupply that would be remedied with extra doses to the Southeast. But on Thursday, county and state elected officials got the cold shoulder when Beam’s office canceled a promised call with her that same day. Again, it was about needing more time.

This pandemic is a year old. The time is now to deliver on plans made over the course of 12 months managing this once-in-a-century coronavirus catastrophe. It is not time to ask for more time. It is time now to quickly deliver enough jabs into people’s arms to get businesses back up to full speed, children back to school, and senior citizens back into the arms of their grandchildren.

» READ MORE: A plea to President Biden: Please help suburban Philadelphia get vaccinated. Its 2.5 million people are underserved. | Maria Panaritis

Instead, however, Pennsylvania residents across the 2.5-million-strong collar counties are anxious and exasperated. They have been handed a clunky and lumbering “plan” by the commonwealth under the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. And one week later, they still appear to be getting less than their fair share of vaccine.

The sign-up system in suburban Philadelphia, if it can even be called in good conscience a “system,” is to consumers no different than a slot-machine session in a two-bit speakeasy. There is no centralized portal as there is in New Jersey. Just a vast, uncoordinated network of pharmacies, retail outlets, hospitals, and undersupplied county health departments. Users spend hours on the internet hoping for a hit.

It. Is. Madness.

“I just spent the last 3 nights at midnight trying to get an appointment with Rite Aid based on a ‘way to do it’ via a friend who actually was successful. Unfortunately I was not!!” a 67-year-old woman wrote to me from Jenkintown, Montgomery County. She’d been trying for weeks to get appointments for herself and her 73-year-old husband. “Again so frustrated here.”

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania admits vaccine undersupply in Philadelphia suburbs, promises to fix it with extra doses immediately | Maria Panaritis

Said a Chester County man in West Chester who is in the top vaccine priority group: “As a 67-year-old male who falls under the 1A category, I have been continuously frustrated trying to arrange for a vaccine appointment. Governor Wolf has done an extremely poor job managing this crisis.”

And from a 79-year-old retired teacher in Radnor Township, Delaware County: “I have tried everything to get the vaccine. I am registered in so many places and of course registered with the county in January. Absolutely nothing.”

And on and on and on.

Four counties with four separate governing bodies, serving millions of residents, with no single clearinghouse. Only chaos.

No wonder I had heard escalating frustration from residents and elected officials across Southeastern Pennsylvania in recent weeks. This was why I had sought out the data to begin with — to make sense of what was going on, and to ask why.

I shared with the public on Feb. 28 an analysis of state data that found Philadelphia’s high-population collar counties had received far fewer vaccine doses per person than many other and much smaller ones. Delaware County, with more than a half-million residents and 10% in poverty, ranked 53rd out of 66. The state Health Department said only and via email that it would provide answers a few days down the road once an in-house analysis had been completed.

By Thursday night, however, all that spokesperson Barry Ciccocioppo could do was promise “full transparency.”

Even elected officials are no longer accepting that answer. They told me they have been hearing similar platitudes for weeks while seeking clarity and improvements from state officials. They want to know how COVID-19 vaccine distribution decisions are being made to all the 66 counties (barring Philadelphia) under state purview.

“I would like to have confidence that the Pennsylvania Department of Health is doing everything in their power to make sure that this scarce resource is distributed equitably and that they are transparent in how they are making those decisions,” Montgomery County Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh told me Friday. “Without that, the faith and the confidence in this system is being rapidly eroded.”

I asked if she had that confidence right now.

“Right now,” replied Arkoosh, a physician, “my confidence is starting to become shaky, because we have yet to see the information that we would need to understand this process.”

Let’s see if Beam delivers details when she meets with county commissioners and state lawmakers in the briefing rescheduled for Sunday.

In fairness, much of this aggravation may soon be moot as more vaccine surges into Pennsylvania and all other states in the weeks to come as a result of increased production. But Pennsylvania’s inability to swiftly analyze and convey the substance of its own real-time allocation calculations raises a disturbing question about how well it may be able to improve its craggy, uneven system at all.

Just how in control of their own infrastructure and logistics are Health Department officials?

There’s another confounding fault in what they have built: A sign-up system so Wild West-like that it lacks a singular, elegant, powerful platform. This has created a scrum of vaccine tourism by suburbanites and Philadelphians alike.

“I do not believe that we have an optimal registration system,” Arkoosh agreed when I asked what she thought.

This and other issues are under review by the newly named, five-member COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force of which the governor and four lawmakers are members. State Sen. Art Haywood, a Democratic member from a Montgomery County/Philadelphia district, told me so in an interview.

“There are discussions about how to improve the rollout,” said Haywood, the region’s sole task force envoy. “I fully share the frustrations and disappointment with where we are. It’s extremely stressful. Having said that, I think there is a commitment to try to address it going forward.”

Haywood said the group is discussing whether a central registration plan is an attractive alternative to what is in place. It is complicated — affected by considerations such as how long it would take to even get such a registry up and running, he said. There’s also great interest in understanding the Health Department’s next moves.

“What’s the plan for March, April, and May?” Haywood said. “That’s what folks are seeking, that’s what I’m seeking as well. That’s part of what the task force is developing going forward. Particularly for the collar counties, the frustration level and anger is real, and has to be addressed.”

The best way to ensure our confidence is to deliver answers not tomorrow but today.