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Pennsylvania Nears 1 Million Virus Cases Amid Vaccine Push

Matt Rourke
A pedestrian walks past the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Monday, March 22, 2021.

Pennsylvania neared 1 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus on Wednesday amid rising infections and word of a setback in the state's accelerating COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

The Department of Health reported another 4,667 new cases — the highest single-day number since early February — to bring Pennsylvania to within a few hundred of the milestone. Daily infections have risen more than 10% in two weeks, with hospitalizations beginning to drift up, too.

“All of our numbers are going the wrong way,” Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, said Wednesday.

With health officials on alert, Pennsylvania learned that it will not get nearly as many fresh doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as the federal government initially projected. The state said it will receive about 66,000 doses next week, not 200,000.

Pennsylvania has used its federal allotment of the single-shot vaccine to inoculate more than 100,000 educators. State officials were planning to use future Johnson & Johnson allocations at regional mass vaccination sites, while also reserving doses for special clinics for police and firefighters, grocery store workers, and people in the meat processing and agricultural sectors.

The regional, state-run sites are still in the works, but the targeted populations will now be vaccinated through a separate federal program that sends Johnson & Johnson vaccine directly to retail pharmacies, according to the governor's office, which cast the reduced state allocation as a minor bump in the road.

“As we’ve learned throughout the rollout, projections are never promises,” said Lyndsay Kensinger, spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf.

“While this will change some of the distribution plans,” she said, “we do not anticipate a disruption in the accelerated pace in getting shots into arms.”

Wolf touted federal statistics that show Pennsylvania, after early stumbles, has become more efficient at getting its residents vaccinated.

Pennsylvania is now 17th among the states in the percentage of its population that has received at least one dose, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s up from 30th a month ago, when the Wolf administration ordered providers to get shots into arms more quickly. More than 3 million people have now received at least one dose.

“This is tremendous progress.” Wolf said.

But there remains significant frustration among other eligible residents — people age 65 and over and younger people with high-risk medical conditions — who have waited months to get a vaccine while navigating the state’s confusing, scattershot registration system.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s become ‘The Hunger Games’ for this vaccination process,” said Kenneth E. Lawrence Jr., a Montgomery County commissioner, likening the process of landing a coveted appointment to a dystopian fight to the death.

Montgomery and the other heavily populated counties around Philadelphia — Bucks, Chester and Delaware — have been locked in a bitter battlewith the Wolf administration over what they view as insufficient vaccine allocations. They say smaller counties have received disproportionately larger allotments of the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

The southeast counties also object to the state’s plan to run a regional mass vaccination site using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine instead of distributing those shots to the counties. The counties say they have the capacity to deliver thousands of shots per day and can target the single-shot vaccine to the most vulnerable, including homeless and homebound people.

The state has rebuffed the counties’ entreaties.

“We are incredibly frustrated,” Arkoosh said Wednesday. “We have conveyed as clearly as we possibly can to the Pennsylvania Department of Health that we believe we have been shortchanged on vaccines.”

Kensinger, Wolf’s spokesperson, called Arkoosh’s statement “blatantly false,” adding: “The distribution plan is working.”

While some federal statistics show improvement in the state’s vaccine rollout, others are less favorable. Pennsylvania, for example, ranks 46th among the states in percentage of fully vaccinated people over 65.