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Governor Wolf Pins Vaccine Difficulties On Supply Overpromises

Matt Slocum
Penny Cracas, with the Chester County, Pa., Health Department, fills a syringe with Moderna COVID-19 vaccine before administering it to emergency medical workers and healthcare personnel at the Chester County Government Services Center, Tuesday, Dec. 29.

Gov. Tom Wolf defended Pennsylvania's rollout of the coronavirus vaccine Tuesday, saying it was left in the lurch by the Trump administration's overpromises and that a decentralized vaccine signup system should prove to be more efficient, as opposed to a centralized portal some states use.

He also defended federal guidelines — adopted by his administration — that pushed smokers into the first phase of vaccination, calling it an objective assessment of who is most vulnerable, not a value judgment.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia abruptly cut off a vaccine clinic operator amid concerns that it had sought to profiteer from the work.

Pennsylvania has been getting about 140,000 doses a week from the federal government and Wolf blamed a lack of supply, shifting guidance and unpredictable distributions by the Trump administration for a frustrating and disappointing rollout.

“Our goal remains that whatever we get, we get it out as quickly as we can,” Wolf said.

He is hoping the incoming Biden administration is able to speed up vaccine delivery and provide better guidance, he said.

The state has received just 1.5 million doses, officials said, nowhere close to the 8 million doses it needs to cover everyone in its just-expanded first vaccination phase.

That had included health care workers until the state followed federal guidance and added people 65 and over and those 16 to 64 who have certain conditions, such as cancer, chronic kidney disease, pregnancy, obesity and smokers.

“We thought, we assumed that we were going to have an expanded supply when we went to the 65 and older, which expanded us to about 4 million-plus people,” Wolf told reporters on a video news conference. “And that didn't materialize.”

At the current rate, it will take well past summer to reach the next phase, which includes police, corrections officers, first responders, teachers, grocery store workers and many others.

Wolf said he is urging the Biden administration to speed up vaccine delivery. Including smokers in the first phase drew criticism from labor unions representing state corrections officers and state police troopers.

For the time being, Pennsylvania ranks 37th among the states in the number of doses administered per 100,000 people, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wolf contended that Pennsylvania is in the “middle of the pack,” but also said that middle of the pack is not good enough and that the state needs to do better.

With complaints that hospital and clinic signup registries are overwhelmed, Wolf said he is willing to look at creating a centralized signup system for people seeking the vaccine if he thinks it will be more efficient.

However, a centralized system may have its own backlog and bureaucracy that bogs it down, he said, and he suggested that Pennsylvania's decentralized system — it has about 1,000 vaccine providers — will work better as more vaccine flows.

“I think as each of these thousand entities ramp up their capacity to take calls and we get more supply of vaccine that this system will do a pretty good job,” Wolf said. “But there’s no question that we need to do a better job.”

Randy Padfield, director of Wolf's Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, said the administration will look to mass vaccination events to increase output and reach areas that lack existing avenues, such as hospitals or pharmacies. But, he said, there isn't enough vaccine yet to support such events.

In Philadelphia, officials said they ended their relationship Monday with the group Philly Fighting COVID, which had been chosen to run the city’s largest vaccination site.

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said the city became concerned when the privacy policy on the group’s website changed to allow sharing personal information for people who were signing up for vaccinations and the group abruptly canceled testing events and stopped its COVID testing operations.

Farley said the organization assured the city that personal information had not been sold, but health department officials were working the city’s lawyers to determine next steps to make sure the information will be kept private.

Members of the health department will reach out to people who received a first dose of the vaccine from the group to ensure they get access to a second dose, Farley said.

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