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COVID-19 Vaccine Help Groups Call On Pennsylvania To Expand Eligibility Sooner

Matt Slocum

When Leighann Bacher first started a Facebook group to help Pittsburghers find COVID-19 vaccine appointments, she and the other administrators were overwhelmed. Bacher was personally signing up a dozen or more strangers a night.

Now she’s searching for people to help. When she posts information about available appointments to the group’s more than 40,000 members, the once busy comment section is radio silent.

“It’s just like …crickets,” she said.

Bacher said the steep drop in demand hasn’t been improved by the state moving into phase 1B, which was estimated to add as many as 1 million more Pennsylvanians into the eligibility pool.

“We thought that would be a huge group of people but I think a lot of them already qualified in 1A … or they already got it through extra doses,” she said. Bacher said providers have filled unclaimed appointments with people outside of the eligibility guidelines to avoid wasting doses.

There have been several instances when local clinics have opened appointments to anyone available with little notice. People unable to drop everything to get to a clinic location quickly have been unable to take advantage of the opportunity, according to Bacher.

And, Bacher said, not all providers feel comfortable publicly offering appointments to those ahead of the state’s eligibility schedule. When providers post open appointments, the Facebook group shares them multiple times per day. “And they’re still not filling up. We’re spreading the word,” she said.

Providers like Mainline Pharmacy and Butler Memorial Hospital have had several appointments remain open online the day of a clinic.

Bacher and members of an eastern Pennsylvania Facebook group, called the PA COVID Vaccine Match Maker, are asking the state to allow providers to offer shots to anyone if appointments within 24 hours are unfilled.

The PA COVID Match Maker Facebook group offers the same help as Bacher’s group, has more than 64,000 members. Dr. Christine Meyer, a family physician and administrator of the group, said she has noticed more unfilled appointments at clinics across Eastern Pennsylvania. While case counts rise across Pennsylvania, Meyer has also seen numbers climbing in her office.

“Every minute that we waste not vaccinating people, we’re endangering lives,” Meyer said. “We just hospitalized a 27-year-old with double pneumonia. He’s in the I.C.U. This thing is not anywhere near over.”

Meyer said she would like to see private practices like hers get supplies of vaccines. She said she could administer COVID-19 vaccine shots to her patients as effectively as she does flu shots.

“It’s not about just getting people vaccines. It’s about getting people vaccines fast,” Meyer said.

Meyer and Bacher say providers have told them they could administer shots to more people, but feel beholden to the state’s distribution timeline.

A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health said any provider having trouble filling vaccine appointments should contact the state ahead of a clinic for help getting connected with an eligible Pennsylvanian.

Allegheny Health Network's mass vaccination clinic in Monroeville announced Thursday that it would accept Pennsylvanians in phase 1C this weekend. At the time of the announced expansion, dozens of appointments were unclaimed online.

The department said it could utilize its Your Turn tool to match providers to eligible and waiting Pennsylvanians. But, Bacher, pointed out, the state’s Your Turn tool hasn’t been updated with current Centers for Disease Control guidelines about who is most at risk for COVID-19.

The CDC website lists moderate to severe asthma and a body mass index of 25 kg/m2 or higher as at risk conditions. The Your Turn tool does not list asthma as a qualifying condition and qualifies weight at a BMI of 30 kg/m2 or higher.

Pennsylvania will expand eligibility to the general public on April 19.

By then, Bacher expects the currently low demand to pick back up with a crowd of newly eligible people. But she said waiting to expand eligibility rather than ensure clinics fill up now is a mistake.

“It might [be] two weeks, but that might be hundreds of lives or thousands of lives,” affected by the virus, Bacher said. “We know what can happen in two weeks with COVID[-19].”

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