COVID-19 vaccinations Lancaster EMS

A vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and a syringe containing the vaccine sit on a table at Lancaster EMS headquarters in East Lampeter Township on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. 

THE ISSUE

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 fell last week to its lowest level in three months in Lancaster County. “On Thursday, there were 55 COVID-19 patients in the county’s three hospitals, according to the state Department of Health. That was the fewest since Nov. 5, and was less than a third of the 178 COVID-19 patients hospitalized here at the peak of the recent surge on Dec. 10,” LNP | LancasterOnline reported, noting that hospitalizations are also declining across the state.

The horrific COVID-19 surge seems to be ebbing and for that, we are grateful.

We are not out of the woods yet. Even though our case rate is falling, Lancaster County is significantly above the state average in its current pace of new COVID-19 cases. As of Friday, the county had 552 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population over 14 days, while the statewide rate was 368.

We need to get more people vaccinated against the disease that has upended our lives.

It’s not just upended our lives — it’s shortened our life expectancy, according to an alarming new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Expectancy decline

In the first half of 2020, life expectancy at birth for the total U.S. population was 77.8 years, a decline of a full year from 2019, the CDC report found. It was, as The New York Times noted, “the largest drop since World War II.”

Life expectancy at birth for males was 75.1 years in the first half of 2020, down from 76.3 years in 2019.

For females, life expectancy declined to 80.5 years, down from 81.4 years in 2019.

“Another consequence of the decreased life expectancy estimates observed during the first half of 2020 was a worsening of racial and ethnic mortality disparities,” the report stated.

As The New York Times noted, “The life expectancy gap between Black and white Americans, which had been narrowing, is now at six years, the widest it has been since 1998.”

Life expectancy for Black Americans declined by 2.7 years — and was, at 72 years, “the lowest estimate seen since 2001.” It decreased by 1.9 years for the Hispanic population (from 81.8 years to 79.9).

The decrease in life expectancy was the highest for non-Hispanic Black males, whose life expectancy declined by three years to 68.3 years. They were followed by Hispanic males, whose life expectancy declined by 2.4 years to 76.6 years, the CDC reported.

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely responsible for “the majority of the decline,” Elizabeth Arias, a health scientist at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics and the report’s lead author, told STAT, a Boston Globe Media health and science news website.

Life expectancy had risen in the United States in 2018 and 2019, that website pointed out.

José Manuel Aburto, a demographer at the University of Oxford who was not involved in the CDC analysis, said a full-year decline in life expectancy is unusual, especially for a wealthy developed nation. He told STAT that it points to the “unprecedented burden on life expectancy” the pandemic has taken.

Dr. Mary T. Bassett, a former New York City health commissioner and professor of health and human rights at Harvard University, told The New York Times that unless the United States better addresses inequality, “we may see U.S. life expectancy stagnate or decline for some time to come.”

The CDC report should be a call to arms to public health experts, medical providers and state health officials. Clearly, our vaunted American system of health care is failing too many Americans.

Fixing the problem begins with getting a handle on it. That means collecting and publishing county-level data. But because Lancaster County lacks a public health department, we now have to rely on health systems and the state to provide such data.

In an editorial earlier this month, we noted that Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health and WellSpan Health were unable to provide to LNP | LancasterOnline’s Hurubie Meko the racial demographic breakdowns of people they had vaccinated.

A Pennsylvania Department of Health spokesman said the state would contact vaccine providers that were found to be “neglecting their reporting responsibility” because race and ethnicity demographic data is important. (UPMC subsequently submitted the data.)

But as we noted, the state Health Department only added the racial breakdown of COVID-19 cases and deaths in April after it faced pressure to do so. And as Meko reported, “despite being almost a year into the pandemic, close to 40% of race data for COVID-19 cases and 70% for case ethnicity” were still unknown at the time of her reporting.

Especially in light of the CDC’s report, this is unacceptable.

Vaccine scramble

As was last week’s confusion — there’s a more apt word that comes to mind, but it’s unprintable — over vaccinations in the commonwealth.

As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Nicole C. Brambila reported, roughly 100,000 Pennsylvanians “may have their first or second dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccination delayed” because an undisclosed number of providers used Moderna vaccine reserved for second doses as first doses, according to acting state Health Secretary Alison Beam.

This is an actual sentence that Brambila had to write: “Despite repeated questions during a press conference Wednesday, Beam did not disclose which providers had ‘inadvertently’ done so, while she said the solution was greater communication and transparency.”

Can you see the irony in that sentence? The solution is greater communication and transparency, but Beam didn’t explain to reporters just how the problem occurred.

It appears that the providers weren’t given clear written directions by the state.

As WITF’s Brett Sholtis reported Friday, “Medical providers were following instructions from the state when they gave Moderna COVID-19 vaccines earmarked for people awaiting their second doses to people in line for their first doses, according to the group representing Pennsylvania health systems.”

And providers were assured that “second doses would be available when requested,” Hospital and Health System Association of Pennsylvania spokeswoman Rachel Moore told WITF in an email.

“To address the blunder,” Brambila reported, “Gov. Tom Wolf’s newly created COVID-19 Vaccine Joint Task Force increased the timing of administering the second dose from 28 to 42 days, which falls under federal guidelines.”

We’re guessing that task force is going to be busy.

Mount Joy state Sen. Ryan Aument, who represents the Senate Republican Caucus on the task force, said it was his hope “that the task force will continue to work in a collaborative way to streamline and strengthen Pennsylvania’s vaccine rollout.”

That’s our hope, too. Because confusion seems to be the prevailing force in the rollout now.

Conflicting stories

Consider another story reported last week by Brambila.

“An in-house communication with Willow Valley Communities residents Wednesday stated without citing evidence that COVID-19 vaccination clinics were postponed indefinitely because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had halted shipments,” she reported Friday.

She cited a message from Dennis W. Griest, Willow Valley’s president and chief financial officer, who blamed the delay, in part, on the CDC “temporarily stopping the release of the federal vaccine supply.”

Spokesman Brian Rutter had a different answer. Rutter said Willow Valley didn’t know why the vaccine was not available, because the pharmacy staff administering it “weren’t able to tell us and they don’t know because the feds didn’t tell them.”

So which is it? Did the CDC halt the vaccine supply or did the “feds” not say?

CDC health communications specialist Chandra Zeikel told Brambila in an email that the severe winter weather “impacting a large swath of the country” could delay COVID-19 vaccine shipments and deliveries. She didn’t have any information specific to Lancaster County but suggested “reaching out to the county or the state.”

Just who would be the county contact in this instance, or in any instance relating to public health?

We’re glad the county commissioners are launching a mass vaccination site with LG Health next month, but that effort does not make up for the lack of a public health department in Lancaster County.

If we sound like a broken record, that’s because the system here is broken. And someone has to keep pointing that out until it’s remedied.

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