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As Pennsylvania Works Through Vaccinating Phase 1A, It's Unclear When Phase 1B Could Begin

Kirsty Wigglesworth
Local vaccine providers have said for weeks that there isn't enough COVID-19 vaccine to meet the demands of Phase 1A Pennsylvanians.

Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 vaccine providers have said there isn’t enough supply to keep up with the demand from those currently eligible to receive the shot in Phase 1A. As officials focus on improving the rollout in this phase, when and how the state moves into Phase 1B has yet to be defined.

Phase 1B expands eligibility to a much broader group of Pennsylvanians. Included in this category are first responders, teachers, the homeless, the incarcerated, agricultural workers and others. Phase 1B also affords the vaccine to frontline workers like mail carriers and grocery store employees.

Sarah Flamenbaum works at a grocery store in Pittsburgh. She remembers being called heroic by politicians and marketing campaigns in the spring, but now feels left behind in the initial vaccine rollout. She said essential workers put themselves at risk to keep society going.

“The people who you see every day on your way home from work. The people out in the world. We are the people who are at risk. And we need to get vaccinated,” she said. “Everybody who is making the policies, on their way home from work, stop in the grocery store.”

According to officials, the limited vaccine supply has hindered the speed of the rollout. Gov. Tom Wolf said earlier this week the state is millions of doses short of covering all those who qualify under Phase 1A in Pennsylvania. The state broadened who was eligible for a shot under Phase 1A earlier this month.

“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. And that didn’t materialize,” Wolf said Tuesday.

To vaccinate 4 million people, the state needs 8 million doses of vaccine—two doses per person. So far, Pennsylvania has received 1.5 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

Locally, providers are facing a similar gap, according to the Allegheny County Health Department.

About one-third of the county falls into Phase 1A, county health director Dr. Debra Bogen said Wednesday. That’s roughly 400,000 people. As of Jan. 28, state data show that around 16,500 county residents have been fully vaccinated, while another 50,000 have received their first shot.

April Hutcheson, director of communications for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said in addition to a limited supply, officials haven’t been getting enough notice about vaccine shipments from the federal government.

“We know what we’re getting from the federal government about a week to two weeks before we get it. And so that also makes planning, in terms of when we can move to the next phase, very difficult,” she said.

This week, the Biden administration pledged to start notifying governors about their estimated vaccine allocations three weeks in advance. Biden also announced plans to boost vaccine supply in hopes of speeding up the national vaccine rollout.  

How much of Phase 1A needs to be completed before the state moves to Phase 1B? Hutcheson said officials are still defining that metric.

She said it’s not clear how many people who previously qualified under Phase 1B or Phase 1C were moved into Phase 1A when the state expanded that group to include those over 65 and those with certain health conditions.

Officials are also still determining how best to move into the next phase, according to Hutcheson. Will it be county by county? Provider by provider? She said it will likely be the latter.

“We know that the entire state isn’t going to move from one phase to the next at the same time,” she said. “The population in one part of the state might have more people who are over 65 than another part of the state.”

Hutcheson noted that while a hospital system is located in one county, it could serve a large swath of people from a neighboring county. That muddles how officials can track progress at the county level.

“We know that people commute between county lines,” or state lines, she said. “We have to look at this holistically versus on a county-by-county basis.”

Hutcheson said the state will closely collaborate with vaccine providers when determining a timeframe for moving through phases of the distribution plan. Currently, officials are strategizing new venues for vaccination in the later phases.

“Mass vaccination clinics, community vaccination clinics, closed locations for a whole school district to get vaccinated,” are all ideas on the table, according to Hutcheson.

The Allegheny County Health Department’s vaccination plan lists community centers and churches as potential sites for mass vaccinations as Pennsylvania enters the larger phases of the distribution plan. But the plan doesn’t lay out any estimated timeframe for completing Phase 1A.

As officials wait for more vaccine and continue creating the infrastructure to administer a larger supply, Flamenbaum and her grocery store co-workers wonder when their turn will come.

“I’m very anxious. It’s like the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “We’re not seeing our families. We’re so tired.” 

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