Gov. Tom Wolf and the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force announced Monday that effective today, all Pennsylvanians ages 16 and older are eligible to schedule an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine. “We need to maintain acceleration of the vaccine rollout, especially as case counts and hospitalization rates have increased,” Gov. Wolf said. State Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said “this change provides earlier access for many, including college students, increasing the likelihood of completion of two-dose regimens prior to leaving campus for the summer.” Wolf also announced Monday that the commonwealth now ranks 11th in the nation in terms of first doses administered; nearly 39% of Pennsylvanians have received at least one dose.
COVID-19 vaccine appointments were plentiful last week in Lancaster County and hopefully will be again this week, as the Biden administration works efficiently to keep supply lines open.
After a very rocky start, vaccine-to-arms efforts are proceeding so well in Pennsylvania that Gov. Wolf and the legislative vaccine task force have expanded eligibility to everyone 16 and older nearly a week ahead of schedule. We continue to believe the creation of that bipartisan task force has had a positive — and illustrative — impact (bipartisanship works!).
Mere weeks ago, finding a vaccine appointment was akin to finding a perfect sand dollar on a beach — an enviable and prized achievement.
In response to those struggles, as LNP | LancasterOnline’s Nicole C. Brambila reported Monday, dozens “of Facebook groups have cropped up across the nation to aid eligible patients in finding a vaccine appointment. Doug Ward, who founded the website VaccineHunter.org, has identified more than 60 groups in 39 states, including VaccinatePA, which was created by a group of tech-savvy University of Pittsburgh students.”
Brambila wrote of how, for weeks, Manheim resident Ken Hartenstine searched — to no avail — for COVID-19 vaccine appointments for himself and his wife. “And then,” Brambila wrote, “he stumbled on the Facebook group Pa CoVID Vaccine Match Maker, which promised to help.”
The 65-year-old Hartenstine called his vaccine hunter an angel.
“She almost did everything but take the shot for us,” Hartenstine said.
She is Janet Campbell, a Manheim resident who’s also been called a “vaccine goddess” and “vaccine fairy” (“vaccine diva” must have been taken).
“It was just kind of dumb luck,” Campbell, of Manheim, told Brambila about how she found appointments for the Hartenstines at Weis Markets in Mount Joy.
She’s being modest. It’s more than a matter of luck. She — and other vaccine hunters — have used their skills and sacrificed their time to navigate the internet to help strangers get inoculated against a lethal virus that has killed more than 562,000 Americans.
As Brambila noted, “Ascribing to luck what many have characterized as an exceedingly frustrating process downplays all the details vaccine hunters have to know to book appointments.” (Campbell said she has booked an amazing 180 of them.)
Brambila wrote that vaccine hunters have learned “the intricacies of when appointments drop — frequently at midnight — and where,” and then have sat, “in the wee hours in front of multiple laptops and cellphones, fingers rapidly clicking in search of an opening.”
Debra West, a Bucks County resident who said she has helped more than 100 people obtain appointments in counties including Lancaster, told Brambila: “In the beginning, it looked like 'The Hunger Games' ” — a reference to the dystopian novel in which children battle to the death in a televised competition.
It is, of course, regrettable that volunteer vaccine hunters were necessary. This pandemic demanded better organization at every level of government.
In January, we wrote: “We should not be in a situation in which people feel they are competing against others for vaccines.”
Dr. Christine Meyer, an Exton primary care physician in Chester County, evidently agreed.
When, as Brambila reported, a February snowstorm closed her office, Meyer asked her staff to work from home to assist patients in getting COVID-19 vaccine appointments.
“Within two hours of putting a plug on the Facebook page for the practice offering help, Meyer said they had received 1,200 emails, crashing the server. This was the precursor to Meyer’s Pa CoVID Vaccine Match Maker,” Brambila wrote.
Meyer said frankly — and we completely agree — that the vaccine rollout was, in its early weeks, a mess and inexcusably so, given that we “had a year to prepare for it.”
To date, 700 volunteer appointment “finders” have helped facilitate more than 14,000 appointments, Meyer told Brambila.
“This is a race,” Meyer said. “The variants are changing and they’re taking over. If people don’t get vaccinated fast,” the consequences could be severe (though she didn’t put it quite so politely).
We imagine Meyer put it bluntly because the situation is that stark. Pennsylvania is dealing with a spring surge that has COVID-19 hospitalizations in Lancaster County rising. We must ensure that people ages 16 and older get vaccinated now that they’re all eligible.
Toward that end, local colleges need to strongly encourage students to get vaccinated before they head home for the summer to communities where vaccines may not be as accessible as they are here.
That accessibility owes to the organizing efforts of the Vaccinate Lancaster Coalition, the South Asian Association of Lancaster, Patients R Waiting, Union Community Care, the Lebanon Veterans Affairs Medical Center and other organizations and groups. And this week, 40 members of the National Guard will begin assisting Vaccinate Lancaster to ensure that the county’s Park City Center clinic continues to run smoothly.
Meyer’s Facebook group no longer will match vaccine hunters to people seeking appointments, because the situation in Pennsylvania is evolving so quickly.
And fortunately, they’re not needed so much now.
Nevertheless, we are awed by the volunteer vaccine hunters who have devoted countless hours to the quest to protect people they don’t know from illness.
Hartenstine and his wife Dianne told Brambila they got their second and final vaccine doses last week. The couple plans to see their grandkids in Cleveland, whom they have not seen in a year.
What a gift.
In this pandemic, the balance continues to shift toward sorrow. But the generosity of volunteer vaccine hunters helps to tip the scale. We are deeply grateful for their tenacity and compassion.
REGISTER FOR VACCINATION: Call Vaccinate Lancaster at 717-588-1020 or visit vaccinatelancaster.org.
The Spanish American Civic Association will host a three-day vaccination clinic for underserved communities from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday with Capital BlueCross and Rite Aid. To make an appointment, call 717-397-6267 between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m.