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.

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine wants providers to focus on vaccinating the more than 1 million health-care workers who come into contact with COVID-19 patients as well as older, high-risk residents most susceptible to the ravages of the coronavirus.

WellSpan Health and UPMC officials announced this week they have begun vaccinating all employees, including those who work remotely.

Phase 1A of the state’s vaccination plan prioritizes residents of long-term care facilities, which include nursing homes, and health-care professionals and those not directly involved in patient care, but who could become exposed to “infectious material.”

On Monday, Levine said she was considering whether to soon move the state into Phase 1B, which expands the prioritization to those 75 and older, grocery store workers, educators and clergy, among others.

In a virtual press conference Tuesday, UPMC officials in Pittsburgh defended their vaccination protocol, saying employees in a subsequent priority groups are sometimes vaccinated so as to not waste doses.

“We make sure that we do not ever fail to use as optimally as possible vaccine that’s ready,” said Dr. Donald Yealy, UPMC senior medical director.

Who’s getting vaccinated?

During the press conference, UPMC officials were pressed about media spokespeople and employees working remotely receiving the vaccine.

“The people you’re talking about are not folks who would never get the vaccine,” Yealy said.

It’s unclear when UPMC, which employs more than 90,000 people at 40 hospitals, began inoculating all of its employees.

WellSpan Health announced it had begun to do so on Monday.

WellSpan’s 20,000 employees, registered EMS responders and health-care providers within the communities its eight hospitals serve — including WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital in Ephrata Borough — can schedule a vaccination appointment online.

“Our teams have worked around the clock to quickly assemble and develop the most effective and safe ways to quickly give the vaccine according to the (Pennsylvania) Department of Health’s phased approach,” Ryan Coyle, a WellSpan spokesman, said in an email to LNP | LancasterOnline.

It is unclear whether Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital, too, is permitting all employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Social media posts suggest that those in non-frontline work such as individuals in the public relations and billing departments, have recently received the vaccine.

MaryAnn Eckard, a hospital spokeswoman, said the health system has prioritized employees based on their risk of COVID-19 exposure “in order to ensure equitable distribution to health care personnel.”

Barry Ciccocioppo, a state health department spokesman, declined to comment on hospitals vaccinating nonpriority groups, saying only that the guidance remains unchanged.

Priority groups dilemma

The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which is shipped frozen, can be stored in hospital refrigeration units for up to five days, according to the company. Once thawed and stored, the vials cannot be re-frozen.

Medical providers in New York have thrown away doses after not finding qualifying patients who adhere to that state’s vaccination guidelines, according to a report in the New York Times.

It’s unclear whether Pennsylvania providers have been forced to do so as well.

But Levine is clearly concerned health-care providers might have to choose between tossing out unused doses or vaccinating individuals not in the current priority group.

Levine prefers the latter.

“We don’t want any vaccines to go to waste and we want vaccines to get into arms,” Levine said in a press conference Tuesday.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security, agreed.

“I think there should be a good-faith effort to stick to the priority groups, but it shouldn’t be an obstacle,” Adalja said. “It’s never the wrong idea to vaccinate someone.”

Some health systems are going to great lengths to ensure no dose is wasted.

Lehigh Valley Health Network has begun vaccinating some individuals in Phase 1B such as firefighters, police and guardsmen with the National Guard, Brian Downs, a hospital spokesman said in an email.

In select circumstances, patients 75 years and older who are registered with an MyLVHN account can sign up for open slots, Downs said.

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