State government should consider appointing a "vaccine czar" with a military background to coordinate the rollout of COVID-19 immunizations to millions of Pennsylvanians, state Sen. Ryan Aument said Tuesday.
Aument, a Republican from Mount Joy, made the comment hours after Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf appointed him to a new task force to better communicate and coordinate the state's vaccine plan. Aument will serve on the panel with top health officials and members of each legislative caucus, Wolf’s office announced Tuesday.
Appointing a retired military officer could complement legislative efforts to employ the Pennsylvania National Guard to distribute and administer vaccinations, Aument said. The House passed legislation last week to authorize the state’s military force to aid in vaccine rollouts statewide.
“Health care experts need to be at the table, but to have some operational planning and execution expertise will be really valuable,” Aument said. Having advocated for a COVID-19 response task force since the beginning of the pandemic, Aument will quickly bring ideas to the table, he said in a phone call Tuesday.
“I don’t think there’s a higher priority,” Aument said. “I hope to be part of the solution. It’s very clear to me that the residents of Lancaster County and residents across the state want, expect and deserve results, not partisan bickering or infighting.”
In addition to suggesting the appointment of a top vaccine official, Aument said he’d share any best practices from Lancaster County’s public-private partnerships to open a mass vaccination clinic in the coming weeks with the intention of vaccinating approximately 6,000 people per day. County officials hope to begin opening the mass vaccination clinic in early March, though they are still finalizing the location and other details.
Aument and Sen. Scott Martin, a Republican from Martic Township, reached out to the Department of Health two weeks ago to schedule a meeting, in part to brief its officials on Lancaster County’s vaccination efforts and to ask for the department’s support for the county’s mass vaccination plan. The two Lancaster County senators, along with Lancaster General Health’s Dr. Michael Ripchinski and health department officials joined the initial meeting, and have been in contact ever since.
“As vaccinations are available, (we wanted) to ensure that we’re receiving an appropriate amount and make sure that the Department of Health was well aware of what our capacity was,” Aument said.
As part of the initial meeting, Aument and Martin asked the Department of Health about Lancaster County’s low share of vaccine distributions – but they did not get a clear answer, Aument said. He said he hopes to get answers through this task force, as well as during additional House and Senate health committee hearings.
But prior to that meeting -- and throughout the entire pandemic -- Aument said it’s been a challenge to get the Wolf administration to work with the Legislature.
Aument mentioned British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s war ministry in the early days of World War II. The ministry contained members of each of the political parties, to help inform his decisions in the time of emergency. This -- and Aument’s view that in crises, there should be “more voices at the table,” -- is why he has advocated for a multi-governmental response to the pandemic, Aument said.
“I think there’s wisdom in that: bringing all branches of government to the table, bringing more voices, not less,” Aument said. “Still, we need to allow decisionmakers to still have the ability to make decisions in emergencies, but having that collaboration and transparency is important.”
The task force will meet on an “as needed basis,” according to a news release from Wolf’s office. The lawmakers will be tasked with providing updates to their respective caucuses.
“We’ve, quite frankly as a state, we’ve struggled with the vaccination distribution,” Aument said. “I get the sense after the last few days, and even weeks, an interest (from Wolf) to have more of a collaborative approach. I’m hopeful that we’ll turn a corner here and we’ll begin to see a dramatic improvement.”