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

As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Hurubie Meko reported Tuesday, “Pennsylvania’s online map of COVID-19 vaccination providers is no longer offering information about which providers have received doses of a vaccine. That information, which could help narrow down the number of places to call to get a vaccination appointment, had been shown on an interactive map the state Health Department published Jan. 11 and had been updating.”

We needed a plan, and we needed it long before now.

The county needed a plan to facilitate the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and a county public health department to implement that plan.

The state needed a plan to ensure Pennsylvania counties and health care providers got adequate doses of COVID-19 vaccines and a plan to keep anxious state residents updated about vaccine administration.

The federal government needed a plan to get a reliable flow of vaccine doses to the states, to communicate what states should expect and when, and to ramp up vaccine production.

The Biden-Harris administration is executing a federal plan now. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and their COVID-19 team only have been on the job for 15 days, so we’ll give them some time, but not much.

If we’re going to stave off additional unnecessary deaths, especially among vulnerable populations, we don’t have the luxury of time.

The continuing confusion over COVID-19 vaccination all stems from a lack of planning. We knew for months that COVID-19 vaccines almost certainly were coming by the end of 2020, but government officials failed to put effective distribution plans in place. Now they’re playing catch-up and people in higher-risk groups who need the vaccines are scrambling to find them.

Last Thursday, the Lancaster County commissioners held a news conference to discuss their plans for a local mass vaccination site. No specifics, including site location, were revealed. County Commissioner Ray D’Agostino said logistics were “in an advanced planning stage,” but “we are still several weeks away from completing the planning stage and getting to implementation.”

Manor Township resident Barry Millhouse — who had detailed his difficulties in scheduling a vaccine appointment for his 78-year-old mother to LNP | LancasterOnline’s Meko — was not impressed. “It just seems to be all talk and no action at this point,” he said, of the commissioners’ news conference. “What they say is just too vague, and they need to be much more specific with what they are doing, planning to do or have done to this point.”

We completely agree. While we’re glad a mass vaccination site is in the works, we think logistics should have been in “an advanced planning stage” months ago.

An LNP | LancasterOnline analysis of state Health Department data found that Lancaster County ranks 45th in Pennsylvania (out of 67 counties) in its per capita rate of coronavirus vaccinations, “and at the current pace it could take most of the year to get the job done.”

As of Monday, some 5.5% of Lancaster County’s population had been either partially or fully vaccinated, according to the data. The average for Pennsylvania counties was 6.5%. In the top nine Pennsylvania counties, the LNP | LancasterOnline analysis found, more than 10% of the population had been partially or fully vaccinated.

Lancaster County has launched a website, vaccinatelancaster.org, which seems at first glance to be helpful. But when you click on “Where Can I Get Vaccinated?” it advises you to contact providers and offers links to the websites of local health systems. (Props to Lancaster Health Center, whose bilingual COVID-19 information page is the most impressive of the bunch. The center provides health care to underserved communities.)

The county website also suggests you go to the state Department of Health’s online vaccine provider map.

As Meko reported, the map used to be helpfully color-coded, showing “vaccine providers that had received doses to date with a green dot. A red dot showed vaccine providers that had not received doses.”

Now all vaccine providers, whether they received vaccine doses, are marked with blue dots.

A state Health Department spokesman said the change was made “because in many cases only the providers know if they have appointments available or not,” so department officials “felt that this change would be the best representation for the public.”

It’s not. It just adds to the prevailing frustration and confusion over where to get vaccinated.

The state shouldn’t just now be fine-tuning the online tools to which people look for vaccine information. And it certainly shouldn’t be making those tools less useful. (Perhaps state officials should contact the designer of Lancaster Health Center’s COVID-19 page for advice.)

That so many people want to get vaccinated against COVID-19 is a very good thing. But the lack of detailed planning at the county, state and, until recently, federal levels means we risk wasting the opportunity that science has given us to protect our population against the disease that has impeded our children’s schooling, wrecked segments of our economy and, most devastatingly, taken the lives of more than 450,000 Americans.

We know that efforts have been hampered by inadequate vaccine supply. But Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, said Tuesday that the federal government would allocate a minimum of 10.5 million doses of coronavirus vaccines to states for the next three weeks, a bump of 5% “resulting from an expected increase in manufacturing,” The New York Times reported.

And Moderna has asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to allow it to increase the amount of COVID-19 vaccine in each of its vials by as much as 50%. The FDA should move quickly to ensure this is safe.

The federal government seems to be working with some urgency to get vaccine doses to states. Now Pennsylvania health officials need to be as transparent as possible about the locations, quantities and arrival dates of vaccine doses.

As for county officials, we’ll repeat the advice we’ve been giving for months: Start the process of establishing a county public health department. This won’t be the last crisis that requires one.

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