COVID-19 Vaccination roll out lacking in Pennsylvania

By Jen Warner

The Pennsylvania Department of Health briefs residents on a large distribution error of the Moderna vaccine (pictured). Photo by Eduardo Munoz/Pool/Getty Images

Pediatric nurse and DCCC Alumni Jennifer DiMeo is still waiting for her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine after receiving the first in a simple scheduling process, while her father waits on several lists for his first dose with no appointments in sight. 

“The first vaccine started in December and it went very smoothly,” DiMeo said. “I was able to get it scheduled at work when I was ready, and it was simple.”

DiMeo’s experience is the exception, as many residents are not encountering the same scheduling simplicity in the race to vaccinate against the deadly coronavirus, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has claimed more than 500 thousand lives to date in the United States of America alone.

When it comes to vaccine administration, Pennsylvania is categorizing its residents into a series of phases starting with those with the greatest need. 

A breakdown of vaccination eligibility by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, courtesy of the Official Twitter account for the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

This first phase deems first responders, health care workers, the elderly, those on the front line, and those with compromised immune systems as eligible to be vaccinated immediately. Following them is Phase 1B, Phase 1C, and finally Phase 2, during which the general public can expect to receive their vaccines.

“My dad is registered with several counties, his hospital, and different pharmacies,” DiMeo said. “He hasn’t heard anything from them and it all just seems to be really chaotic.”

DiMeo’s father is not alone. The Chester County Health Department (CCHD) reports that as of Feb. 19, only an estimated 36,561 of its 97,869 Phase 1A registered residents have been vaccinated since the December roll out.

According to their website, the CCHD cites unfulfilled requests for additional vaccines as the culprit of the shortage. So far they’ve received less than half of the requested doses from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Weekly COVID-19 Vaccine Update. Photo courtesy of The Chester County Health Department

This issue seems to be statewide, as The Becker Hospital Review ranks Pennsylvania 44 out of 50 states in terms of vaccines distributed to the state versus vaccines administered in arms.

To add to the scheduling delays and challenges, the Pennsylvania Department of Health held a briefing on Feb. 17 during which they informed residents of a recent distribution error affecting the Moderna vaccine. 

“We discovered some providers inadvertently used the Moderna vaccine shipped to them, intended as second doses, as first doses,” said acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam.

This mistake has led to the rescheduling of thousands of vaccine appointments in the coming weeks, as the demands far outweigh the supply of second Moderna doses.

This also poses a threat to the maximum vaccination interval recommended by the CDC, which states that second doses should be administered no more than 42 days after the first dose is given.

These statistics, combined with the lack of direction throughout the entire process, have inspired some Pennsylvanians to take action.

“Those in the 75+ crowd cannot navigate the tech portals with any sense of savvy, and those at-risk communities that have been hit hard by COVID-19 may have language barriers,” said Marie Occiogrosso, principal of Secular Studies and Supports at the Mesivta High School in Bala Cynwyd. Occiogrosso has also served as pandemic coordinator for the school.

“There’s no one intervening to offer direction and support and I fear for those who do not have advocates or family members tackling this for them,” Occiogrosso said.

In the last several weeks, Occiogrosso said she has dedicated countless hours to scouring the internet for appointments for the aforementioned demographics. 

Dr. Christine Meyer also recognized a need for community support and outreach throughout this rollout process. She started the Facebook Group PA CoVID Vaccine Match Maker, a matchmaking group made up of volunteers dedicated to exhausting their resources to procure appointments for those in need.

“In 24 hours, my practice has received over a thousand emails from people needing help scheduling a COVID-19 vaccine, and hundreds of emails from people willing to help those who don’t have access or the ability to schedule these appointments,” Meyer wrote on Facebook.

“This group is meant to connect people wanting COVID-19 vaccines but struggling to get appointments with resources to help.”

The group primarily serves Southeastern Pennsylvania and has gained just under 30 thousand members to date. That number continues to grow by the minute.

Among those seeking assistance in obtaining an appointment to receive her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine is DCCC alumna Joanie Callaghan. 

For Callaghan, the need to be protected from the dangerous virus could not be more critical as she is currently being treated for breast cancer. 

Yet she has faced numerous automated responses and dead-end links with no follow up. She also described encountering those who have successfully posed as Phase 1A eligible in order to jump the line and receive their shots early.

“I questioned them and asked how they were able to receive a vaccine if they don’t meet the criteria yet here I am, a breast cancer patient in the 1A category at high risk because I’m immunocompromised, and I can’t get a vaccine,” Callaghan said. “I don’t understand that.”

DCCC counselor Michele Geary Boyle said she empathizes for those in Callaghan’s shoes, as well as those on the front line who don’t have the ability to stay safe at home in this global pandemic. As a Phase 1B eligible resident, she is more than willing to wait her turn in line.

“I know that since March of last year there have been lots of people who haven’t had the luxury of staying home, such as grocery store employees, first responders, and more,” Geary Boyle said. “I really don’t want to jump in front of someone else who hasn’t been as lucky as me.”

The struggles to acquire a COVID-19 vaccine appointment are varied, but experts agree that Pennsylvania’s vaccine rollout has much room for improvement. 

“I think it would be helpful if they had something where you could see where you were on the list, how many people are signed up, and how many are ahead of you,” DiMeo said. “And I almost feel like if they did something like that, it would alleviate some of the stress.”

Callaghan agrees. 

“After we register for the vaccine, follow through with something besides an automated response,” Callaghan said. “And have a stronger screening process for medically necessary people to be able to qualify for the vaccine so that the most at-risk individuals aren’t struggling.”

Geary Boyle thinks that a statewide system would prove more efficient than the current system. She feels that having many providers with small amounts of allotted doses only adds to the panic and confusion of scheduling.

“We need more state level intervention, but in the meantime, we need individuals and community activists to step up and step in for those that cannot navigate this system on their own,” Occhiogrosso said.

Contact Jen Warner at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu.

Important Information

Pennsylvanians seeking more information about the COVID-19 Vaccination should visit the following sites.

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