Dear President Biden: The suburbs of Philadelphia need you. Please send help. Send the Federal Emergency Management Agency, send a lot more COVID-19 vaccine, and do it now. The four counties that are home to 2.5 million Pennsylvanians are mired in a vaccine distribution morass not of their making.
Time is of the essence. Lives and livelihoods are at stake.
An analysis of recent state Department of Health data shows that Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties had received, from the start of distribution through Wednesday, many fewer doses of vaccine by population than counties much, much smaller. This is an economic engine of communities that are home to a combined one million more people than Philadelphia. The situation is alarming.
The data of received doses per 100,000 people, analyzed by The Inquirer based on vaccine actually delivered to 66 counties in the state, are staggering and confounding. Philadelphia was excluded from the analysis.
Delaware County, population 566,747, had received just 9,113 doses per 100,000 people as of Wednesday. That’s two-thirds less vaccine than in tiny Bradford County, with 60,323 people on the New York border. And yet, both counties have nearly identical infection rates (7,181 coronavirus cases per 100,000 in Delco, 7,226 in Bradford.) Just how bad is this? Delco was ranked 53rd in the rate of doses received out of the 66 counties. And this in a place where one out of 10 people was living in poverty pre-pandemic.
Chester County, population 524,989 and sixth largest in the state, had received only 14,748 doses per 100,000 residents, while Elk County and its 29,910 residents in the state’s northwestern quadrant were ranked second in doses statewide. Elk got the equivalent of 45,721 doses per 100,000 people.
Bucks County, fourth largest in Pennsylvania with 628,270 people, had gotten 13,103 doses per 100,000 residents, while Mifflin County, 46th largest with a population of just 46,138 northwest of Harrisburg, ranked third in doses.
Montgomery County, one of the three most populous with 830,915 residents, ranked 20th in doses — 17,667 per 100,000 residents. No. 1 statewide: Montour County, 61st in population with just 18,230 residents north of Harrisburg. It received 164,153 doses per 100,000 people.
None of this looks good, sounds good, or makes much sense.
In Philadelphia, where vaccines are allocated directly by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and not Harrisburg, local health officials do not disclose the number of doses actually received by city providers. However, CDC allocation data suggest that even this city, despite early stumbles with its vaccine rollout, is faring at least as well as the highest-ranked Philadelphia suburb and twice as well as Delaware County along its western border.
Elected officials told me their phones have been ringing off the hook. Fearful and frustrated constituents are afraid and angered by a fractured infrastructure of pharmacies, hospitals, and other providers with insufficient supply. The state Health Department on Friday night told me a county-by-county analysis was underway about the situation and it hoped to share the findings with me a few days from now.
I had been hearing for weeks that officials across the balkanized, four-county region were exasperated. I pursued the data crunch in search of answers. The findings make clear that suburbia, on its face, is a strong candidate for the kind of FEMA intervention the White House has committed to Philadelphia.
“It’s been shocking to us. We’ve been frustrated,” said Delaware County Council Vice Chair Monica Taylor. “No one is getting vaccine, we all have a low amount of vaccine across the state, that’s what we were originally thinking. ... Then, when you see data like this, you say, ‘What is happening?’”
Chester County commissioners, whose Health Department has also been serving Delaware County during the pandemic, observed similar data trends in an analysis that they performed in early February. They, too, had been wondering whether impressions of inequity on the ground were rooted in perception or truly inadequate vaccine allocations from the state.
They found the latter. They shared their findings in a Feb. 10 letter to acting Health Secretary Alison Beam that contained a spreadsheet as well. They asked the newly named successor to Rachel Levine for an explanation. Beam responded without clear answers but has made herself and her staff available day after day for what have been regular phone calls with officials since then.
“I think they were a little bewildered as well at first,” Chester County Board of Commissioners Chair Marian Moskowitz said in a Friday interview. “The acting secretary was in for only one week when she got our letter. It’s never come back to us with, ‘This is why it’s happened,’ or, ‘This is what we’re doing to correct those kind of things.’ I really don’t know. They’ve never come back and told us why.”
Officials in Delaware County have grown so frustrated that they have asked for federal assistance. Otherwise, they must wait potentially weeks or months for enough vaccine to begin flowing via Harrisburg’s murky allocation formula to match population needs.
Federal supply is certainly a huge part, if not all, of the problem in Harrisburg. All the more reason for the feds to get involved.
“We have put in a request through our congresswoman to get FEMA in to have a site somewhere in the collar counties that we can all use,” Delaware County’s Taylor told me Friday. “We just put in the request last week. Hopefully we will hear back soon.”
The counties are not just a political force that delivered the White House to Biden. They are one of the most economically vital regions in Pennsylvania. Businesses and schools there have been battered for going on a year now. The state Health Department, meanwhile, appears to be, at the very least, overwhelmed.
The agency on Feb. 17 announced the bungling of 100,000 second Moderna doses. It then hired a consultant to wrangle logistics in the wake of that mess. Somehow, providers had taken doses intended as second shots and instead stuck them into people’s arms as first doses.
This does not inspire confidence.
That mess is expected to further delay clearing of the vaccine bottleneck. And that news came just days after that Feb. 10 letter from Chester County officials to Harrisburg about the disparity of doses across the suburbs.
“We know how frustrating and difficult this process has been,” Commissioner Josh Maxwell said at a news conference Thursday in West Chester. “... There are simply more obstacles than there should be to get a vaccine.”
There also was frustration that day during state budget hearings.
“Please, Madame Secretary, explain to me, when will we see an increase in Delaware County?” State Rep. Leanne Krueger asked Beam. “What kind of corrective action is coming for us here?”
Beam replied only partially.
“We do have a process by which we have been evaluating where county allocations have happened historically and making sure that we have a full understanding of not just where there’s been allocations to the county and municipal health departments but also the hospitals and the other providers within them,” she said.
“We are refining our allocation science moving forward,” Keara Klinepeter, executive deputy health secretary, added.
The one-year mark of this pandemic is days away. Now is no time to spend more time not doing things better.
Please, Mr. President, we need you.