Vaccinate Lancaster

Pictured is the Lancaster County Vaccination Center in the former Bon-Ton store at Park City Center on Tuesday, March 9, 2021.

THE ISSUE

Gov. Tom Wolf reported Friday that Pennsylvania ranked 13th in the nation in first doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered; 32.4% of Pennsylvanians had received at least one dose; 1.92 million Pennsylvanians were fully vaccinated; more than 5.4 million vaccines had been administered; and more than 1.6 million seniors had received at least one dose.

In the battle to defeat COVID-19, we are making real progress via vaccination.

The nation had, by Thursday, “administered 20 million shots in seven days,” President Joe Biden said Friday.

And Pennsylvania is climbing the state rankings for vaccines administered, which is both amazing and surprising, given the commonwealth’s slow and rocky start in the race to vaccinate.

As Brown University School of Public Health Dean Ashish K. Jha said last week, it is a race — a race against a capricious, lethal and highly transmissible virus and its variants. And it’s a race we cannot afford to lose.

Fortunately, last week’s vaccine developments were promising.

As LNP | LancasterOnline reported Thursday, Lancaster County’s mass vaccination site is on track to hit its daily capacity of giving 6,000 doses each day this week.

Also promising: Dr. Michael Ripchinski, chief clinical officer for Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, said the Vaccinate Lancaster coalition is talking to the state Department of Health about increasing its capacity even beyond 6,000 doses per day if vaccine supply and staffing allow.

“The Lancaster County vaccination center is well positioned right now to accommodate the rapid increase of those who are eligible,” Ripchinski said.

Because the federal government has ramped up supply, and Biden has called for all American adults to be eligible for vaccination by May 1, Pennsylvania’s Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam announced Wednesday that the commonwealth is accelerating its vaccination schedule.

State Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Mount Joy, who is a member of Gov. Wolf’s legislative COVID-19 vaccine task force, said he was initially hesitant about the state being able to meet an accelerated timeline. But after analyzing the state data and hearing from vaccine providers about the shrinking pool of people in Phase 1a who still needed to be vaccinated, he changed his mind.

“We’re making tremendous progress, and I’m confident based on the supply that’s coming in and the outstanding work the providers are doing to reach folks, that we can meet that aggressive timeline,” Aument told LNP | LancasterOnline.

Emergency responders, grocery store workers and agriculture workers became eligible for vaccination last week.

Others in Phase 1b — including public transit workers, U.S. Postal Service workers, manufacturing workers and essential clergy — will be eligible for vaccination Monday.

Phase 1c begins April 12 and includes food service workers, construction workers, bank tellers, government employees and public safety workers.

Then, beginning April 19, all Pennsylvania adults will be eligible to be vaccinated.

More positive news: As The New York Times reported Wednesday, “The Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine is extremely effective in young adolescents, perhaps even more so than in adults, the companies reported Wednesday — a finding that could ease the return to normalcy for millions of American families.”

In children ages 12-15, the Pfizer vaccine “demonstrated 100% efficacy and robust antibody responses ... and was well tolerated,” Pfizer stated in a news release.

This is fantastic news.

Also, the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners approved an agreement Wednesday that will enable the Lancaster Emergency Medical Services Agency to provide in-home vaccinations to senior citizens unable to leave their homes.

“While the number of seniors in Lancaster County who we believe fall into this category is small, it’s still a very vulnerable population, and we do want to make sure we are able to reach out to them to get the vaccine that they need,” said Lon Wible, executive director of the Office of Aging.

We wondered in a February editorial why the county Office of Aging seemed to be playing catch-up in identifying seniors who needed assistance in getting vaccinated. We’re relieved to learn that this category of county residents is getting this critical help.

In the race to vaccinate, no one can be left behind.

As Biden said Friday, “We’ve made significant progress ... but the fight’s far from over.”

Health department debate

We’ve repeatedly made our position clear: We believe strongly that Lancaster County needs a public health department.

A Franklin & Marshall College survey, partially funded by United Way of Lancaster County, found overwhelming and widespread support last fall among Lancaster County residents for the establishment of a county public health department.

That survey has been criticized as biased by county Commissioner Josh Parsons, but as F&M government professor Stephen K. Medvic pointed out in an op-ed Wednesday, the public health and survey research experts who conducted the study “did the fair and objective thing and asked about a benefit (i.e., the hypothetical reduction in health harms brought about by a public health department) and about costs (i.e., varying levels of hypothetical tax increases).”

Medvic wrote that the study questions went to “great lengths to balance people’s desire for positive policy outcomes with their willingness to pay for those outcomes,” and accurately captured “demand for a public health department by county residents, which is quite high.”

An online discussion Wednesday co-hosted by F&M and United Way addressed the health department question.

Harriet Okatch, F&M assistant professor of biology and public health, pointed out that because Lancaster County lacks a health department, it does not have access to timely data on lead exposure in children. And state data is basic and aggregated, so it can’t be used to identify where precisely children are being exposed to lead.

More timely data could be used to identify problematic housing stock and to apply for more lead abatement grants.

Alice Yoder, executive director of community health for Lancaster General Health, noted that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the state was slow to organize contact tracing, so LG Health had to build a county contact tracing operation, to augment the work being done by Union Community Care (formerly Lancaster Health Center).

LG Health sought certain data from the state but didn’t have public health authority, so it wasn’t provided with that data.

“You can hire all the people you want to look at public health ... but you’re not going to be able to get the data from which to work to better people’s health, in times of emergency (and) times of nonemergency, unless we have a community health department,” noted Susan Baldrige, executive director at Partnership for Public Health, a nonprofit that plays a role in research, advocacy and education, but does not do the work that a county health department would.

Jennifer Meyer, an assistant professor of government and public health who worked on the F&M survey, said taxpayers in Chester and Allegheny counties pay less than an estimated $10 a year for their health departments.

“There’s a cost to having a public health department, but there’s also a large financial cost to not having a public health department,” Meyer said.

The issue of lead exposure in children is a case in point.

Children with high lead levels are more likely to develop learning disabilities and behavioral issues. A 2017 Princeton University and Brown University study found that early lead exposure in boys raised the probability of incarceration by 27% to 74%. These problems spell higher costs for school systems and county governments.

A county public health department that could tackle lead exposure in children effectively, with real-time data, could save children’s futures — and taxpayer money in the long run. So there is both a moral imperative and a fiscal one at stake.

If leaders had the mindset of “ ‘we’re all in for everyone,’ we really could address a lot of these issues,” Baldrige said.

Honestly, we couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

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