Pfizer vaccine LGH

Bobbi Jo Hurst, manager of employee health & safety at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, left, administers Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine to ICU nurse Nikkee Asashon at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health Suburban Pavilion on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020.

For Kenneth Hartenstine, the past three weeks of trying to schedule COVID-19 vaccine appointments for himself and his wife has gone from frustrating to disheartening.

Hartenstine, 65, has called Lancaster County providers, Gov. Tom Wolf’s office and the state Department of Health. He’s also tried scheduling appointments in neighboring counties and reached out to multiple media outlets. Nothing has worked.

He isn’t alone.

Many Lancaster County residents have voiced their frustration over not being able to schedule an appointment despite the fact that the state is almost one month into the expanded Phase 1A of its vaccine rollout. Vaccine providers and the state say their ability to vaccinate the public is hampered by the federal government’s weekly allocation of doses.

The Lancaster County commissioners and a coalition of local medical providers announced this week that they plan on launching a mass vaccination site that could inoculate up to 6,000 people a day that would operate from March through June. They stressed the number of people that will be able to be vaccinated daily will be limited by vaccine allocation.

But for Hartenstine, the biggest frustration has been knowing vaccine doses, although limited, are coming into the county even while he can’t figure out how to position himself and his wife to be a priority with providers administering the shots. To his understanding, health care professionals are still getting priority when it comes to appointments.

Are providers following the rules?

Under the state’s initial vaccination plans, front-line medical professionals, unaffiliated health care workers and those in long-term care facilities were eligible to get vaccinated. After the expansion last month, providers are not supposed to prioritize any subset of eligible individuals in Phase 1A for vaccinations, according to a state health department spokesperson.

“Vaccine providers signed an agreement to follow CDC and state vaccination guidelines, which include not prioritizing any subset of people deemed eligible under the current vaccination phase,” said Barry Ciccocioppo, health department spokesman. “In other words, they agreed not to deny vaccines to eligible individuals.”

However, the state isn’t directly regulating if providers are following the instructions from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, Ciccocioppo said. Instead, it is working off the honor system.

If issues are revealed, “we will follow up with individual providers,” Ciccocioppo said.

Local health systems

Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health has given 40% of first doses to unaffiliated health care providers and patients who are over 75 and have underlying high-risk conditions that could lead to severe sickness or death, said Dr. Michael Ripchinski, the health system’s chief clinical officer.

The system is no longer prioritizing health care workers and is opting to directly contact individuals they know are high-risk, Ripchinski said. Setting up a sign-up portal while vaccine doses are limited could lead to canceled appointments as the allocations from the state fluctuate, he said, and could also potentially lead to inequity as people who are better at using computers or have easy access beat the disadvantaged to fill spots.

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WellSpan Health launched a sign-up portal the day the state expanded Phase 1A to include people over 65 and those with high-risk medical conditions. Its portal was immediately flooded with requests and shut down after scheduling 45,000 appointments in 48 hours.

“(W)e do not reserve vaccines for hospital staff and medical professionals,” said Ryan Coyle, WellSpan Heath spokesman. “For additional detail, as Phase 1A has expanded, the available appointments have been first come, first served to those eligible individuals seeking appointments.”

UPMC said it continues to vaccinate those who fall under Phase 1A.

“We’ve followed the initial commonwealth guidelines and given more than 110,000 vaccines to people, including nearly 15,000 non-UPMC health care workers and over 3,000 residents and staff at long-term care facilities,” said Kelly McCall, UPMC Pinnacle spokeswoman. “This is a four-fold higher rate than the 10% vaccine allocation that the commonwealth mandated health care systems provide to nonemployees.”

But for Hartenstine, the daily effort, the changing directions and the “I’m sorry, but we just don’t have the vaccine” responses are becoming too much.

“My feeling is unless someone holds our state government to task, it’s not going to change. I mean, somebody has got to stand in front of the governor and say this ain’t working,” he said. “It’s almost to the point where I’ve given up and said I’m not going to get one until 90% of the people have gotten it.”

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