Supply of the COVID-19 vaccine, or lack thereof, is the biggest headache facing county leaders and local health officials charged with fighting the pandemic. With up to 8,000 doses received per week, vaccinating Lancaster County’s more than 545,000 residents would take until late this year.
As Commissioner Josh Parsons has said repeatedly in past weeks, “our community is prepared to distribute as much they are prepared to send.”
Complaints about how the state government is allocating COVID-19 vaccines grew so loud since the start of the year that Gov. Tom Wolf created a task force last week to help communicate the state’s plans to legislators and local officials, as well as give the Legislature a way to provide input on improving the state’s vaccine distribution plan.
One of the task force members is Ryan Aument, the state senator representing the northern half of the county. He got a call last Feb. 10 around 10:30 a.m., asking him if he’d like to join. By 11 a.m., Wolf had made the panel official.
Since then, Aument’s work has shifted to focus entirely on the vaccine, he said. The task force has met four times, including one emergency meeting to inform the lawmakers that health providers had released too many first doses of the vaccine, possibly threatening the timely delivery of 30,000 to 50,000 first doses for Pennsylvanians and as many second doses.
The task force will meet again on Tuesday to discuss what Aument hopes will be a better approach to distributing the COVID-19 vaccine to counties.
Right now, the state says its vaccination plan takes populations into account when allocating vaccines to health providers. But its record thus far says otherwise: An LNP | LancasterOnline analysis published earlier this month found Lancaster and its surrounding five counties received 33,000 fewer doses in the first seven weeks of the vaccine rollout. The south-central counties received fewer doses than Lehigh and its surrounding five counties, which have 400,000 fewer people.
The state’s current vaccine rollout is disjointed -- with health providers, pharmacies and federal agencies all competing for doses from the federal government and not necessarily coordinating among themselves on how to target vulnerable populations.
Wolf’s office confirmed the Department of Health is preparing a new strategic plan to distribute the vaccine when it is more widely available. This plan will be considered by the task force and then more widely distributed, Wolf’s spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said in an email.
“The challenge is, we’re behind,” Aument said. “I‘m not sure who is to blame for that, and I’m not terribly interested in pointing a finger right now. Right now our focus needs to be on fixing the problems and making dramatic and rapid improvements.”
The Biden administration has boasted a 20% increase in vaccine supply, releasing 13.5 million doses to states last week alone, NPR reported. As the state’s allocation of the vaccine is expected to increase in future weeks -- and as Lancaster County prepares to open a mass vaccination clinic capable of delivering 6,000 doses per day -- a clear, transparent formula for distributing the vaccine becomes even more important, Aument said.
The state’s new formula will likely consider a county’s ability to distribute the vaccine, and the size of its population aged 65 and over, Aument said. This means Lancaster County is on track to receive more doses.
“As we look at the new allocation formula, counties like Lancaster will benefit,” he said.
A main tenet of this plan will be to equitably distribute the vaccine and encourage people to receive it, Aument said. This has been one of Wolf’s priorities in the task force meetings, he said. Because not everyone will be able to travel to a central location to receive the vaccine, Wolf is also interested in implementing “mobile” vaccination sites, Aument said.
In the task force’s first meetings, Aument said he advocated the state appoint a “vaccination czar” to oversee the rollout. But he said that may not be necessary, because the Wolf administration is now working with Dr. Jonathan Lim from Boston Consulting Group on getting vaccines to health providers. Lim and the state are now tapping the planning expertise of other stakeholders like the chamber of commerce and other private sector groups. As this “potentially accomplishes” the czar role Aument sought, he said he will set aside his suggestion to give the current effort time to succeed.
Meanwhile, Lancaster County leaders and the three major health systems working here are hoping to deal directly with the federal government on vaccines. That’s why the health systems and the county are aiming for 6,000 doses per day at the mass vaccination site, which is scheduled to open in mid-March. That volume allows the county to bypass the state Department of Health and go directly to the federal government to obtain supplies for the mass vaccination center.
John Lines, a spokesman for Lancaster General, said the health system is continuing to “identify all opportunities to secure additional vaccines for our community,” and is working with the task force, county government and the state Department of Health to do so.
“This rollout is essential to our economic recovery and getting kids back to school full-time,” Aument said. “It has to be our priority here.”
Eventually, though, Aument said the Legislature will need to look back at the communication breakdowns between the federal government and state that led to a delay in putting together a strategic plan.
But even as the vaccine task force updates the state’s distribution strategy, Aument warned that changes won’t happen overnight.
“I do believe we’re going to see increased supply, and I think folks will see an improvement. But again, it’s going to take time because of how the allocation system works,” Aument said.