Dr. Rachel Levine

Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine is shown.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, during Wednesday’s virtual public hearing sponsored by The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, said the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is proceeding well — but could be better.

Citing new data as of Wednesday, Levine said the state has given more than 342,000 vaccines, including 257,000-plus of the first dose, and actually more than 42,000 have received both doses, and are completely immunized.

“Throughout the United States we want to increase the rate of distribution and the rate of administration,” said Levine, who noted that she thinks the process was hindered in December because of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

“I think (that) slowed down the process, but last week and this week we’re going at a much better pace in Pennsylvania, as well as the nation, and we are pretty much right in the middle in terms of states, in terms of the number of vaccines that we are giving,” said Levine.

Levine said it’s not completely accurate to compare “distribution” with the administration numbers.

“It doesn’t all come on Monday. It actually gets spread out to the distribution and transportation throughout the entire week,” said Levine. “It might say on some website that we have gotten 130,000 doses, and it’ll say that on Monday, but doesn’t mean it all came on Monday. We might be getting doses today and tomorrow for that distribution, which influences in terms of when you compare distribution and then you can compare administration, it’ll say it’s distributed doses, but we might not have gotten them yet.”

Levine also said that there is a 24-hour lag time from the time that hospitals give the vaccine to the time that they report it to the Department of Health, and there is an up to 72-hour lag time in terms of CVS and Walgreen’s.

“They might’ve given a vaccine Monday, but I might find out today or tomorrow the date about what they have given,” said Levine. “We always want to make that difference between distribution and allocations as small as possible, but it’s never going to be zero because of those two factors.”

This is a corroboration between the Department of Health, the governor’s office, as well as the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, and the Department of Human Services, said Levine.

“We also are sending vaccines only to hospitals for that mission, but also to qualified health centers in rural areas among other areas, as well as our county municipal health department partners, so that includes Allegheny, but it also includes Erie, etc.,” said Levine.

She noted that Philadelphia has its own programs, so none of the state’s numbers include Philadelphia.

“They (Philadelphia) have their own vaccines. They have their own funding. They have their own program,” said Levine. “In terms of funding I think that this distribution effort has been underfunded in the past by the federal government. They spent about 10 to 12 billion dollars developing the vaccines with the pharmaceutical companies. They allocated to the states approximately 340 million dollars in 2020 for this mission.”

Thinking about that in terms of the population of the country, Levine said it’s about a dollar per person. Pennsylvania received about $14.6 million for the distribution mission, which is about $1.20 per person. In the new stimulus package, there is about $8 billion for the states in territories in big cities, and there is more than $100 billion for Pennsylvania, but the state hasn’t received that money yet. However, when Pennsylvania does receive the money it will help significantly in terms of distribution and administration, she said.

New plans are coming, said Levine, in that the state will be working on all of the other longterm care facilities besides the nursing homes, and CVS and Walgreen’s will be working on that.

“This week, they turned on the Federal Pharmacy Partnership, so we’ll be working with retail pharmacies in terms of distribution and administration, and then yesterday they changed things,” said Levine. “Yesterday afternoon (Tuesday) Secretary Azar instructed us ... to start immunizing seniors 65 and over, and those with chronic medical conditions. That would’ve been part of 1B and 1C.”

The federal government also said they are going to put out more vaccines, said Levine.

“What they’ve been doing is holding back vaccines from the federal government, and so both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccine required two doses. Both required two doses, and so what they’ve been doing is holding back the second dose until the week it’s due and then pushing that out,” said Levine.

That, she said, was to make sure that people could get the second dose no matter what supply chain problems they had.

“They had said that their supply chain is robust, and they’re going to start to push out those second doses,” said Levine. “We hadn’t seen that yet, but hopefully over the next couple weeks we’ll be seeing more vaccines, which we will push out through all the mechanisms that I’ve discussed, and we’ll be able to get more vaccinations.”

Also, when the state receives the funding, they will be starting, with FEMA’s help, some large vaccine clinics.

“We have improved over the last two weeks, as have other states, and we will continue to improve our distribution and our administration of the vaccines as this mission continues,” said Levine.

Levine said the DOH doesn’t know when the vaccine will be given to the general public, which is phase two.

“It depends on how much vaccine there is, as well as those two other vaccines,” said Levine. “(If) we get two more vaccines then that will improve tremendously our ability to get to the general public, and I’m estimating by late spring, maybe summer, hopefully before but I’m trying to be considerate and cautious.”

Levine said hospitals are scheduling patients through their scheduling system. County municipal health departments have the vaccine and they are pushing it through scheduling systems, and of course Walgreen’s and CVS has their own system. And then, as the DOH pushes it out to retail pharmacies they’ll have their scheduling system.

“We are working on a system so people can ping us that they are ready to get their vaccine, and then when their time is ready we’ll be able to push that out to all the vaccination partners to make sure the vaccine is flowing,” said Levine.

Levine said the DOH continues to work on communication and noted the money for that is in the $100 billions.

“As we access that money we’re going to be pushing out a communications plan, and we’re hoping for a robust federal communication plan with the new Biden administration,” said Levine. “The only other couple words I want to say is we have been in discussion with the Biden transition team. I am the president of the Association of State and Territory Health Officials, and we have had some remote discussions with the Biden transition team, but we don’t actually know all of their mind, and they’re supposed to put out some plans this week, tomorrow (Thursday) hopefully. We’ll have to see how their plans jive with the Trump administration plans, and things could change again.”

Levine noted that rural Pennsylvania is primarily receiving the Moderna vaccine because of easy storage requirements.

“Rural Pennsylvania is getting vaccines through their hospitals. It is getting vaccines through federal qualified health centers. It is getting vaccine, for instance for Erie county, through the county municipal health department, and it will soon be getting vaccine through retail pharmacies,” said Levine.

Levine said Walgreen’s and CVS have the mission for longterm care facilities.

“We have not as much of an influence over that,” Levine said. “They get their vaccine from the federal government and they go out and distribute it, and give it, but of course they’re including nursing homes in rural Pennsylvania as well as everywhere else in Pennsylvania.”

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