Pa. lawmakers urge to improve vaccine distribution for seniors

“The stories and phone calls, and the complications people have getting appointments. And there's no communication. We have to fix that.”

(Harrisburg) — Pennsylvania lawmakers on Tuesday implored state officials to do better at getting COVID-19 vaccines to seniors while the Health Department said the new approval of a third vaccine will help.

“This is unacceptable,” state Rep. Bridget Kosierowski, D-Lackawanna, said during a House Aging and Older Adult Services Committee hearing. “The stories and phone calls, and the complications people have getting appointments. And there’s no communication. We have to fix that.”

Department of Aging Secretary Robert Torres said his agency is having employees from its subsidized prescription drug and disabilities services programs help older adults make vaccine appointments.

“I worry just as much as you’ve expressed about our seniors and getting them vaccinated,” Torres said, acknowledging “some practical realities in terms of the volume that we can handle at any particular time.”

At a separate press briefing, the Health Department’s senior adviser for COVID-19 response, Lindsey Mauldin, said more than 2.48 million vaccine doses have been administered in the state of nearly 13 million people. The great majority of them are the first shots of two required doses.

Pennsylvania received more than 500,000 doses last week, she said. The recent authorization of a Johnson & Johnson vaccine will help, but the state has not received its first shipment, she said.

“There is still not enough vaccine available to meet the current demands,” Mauldin said. “There will be more vaccines coming, but patience is still required.”

New infections, hospitalizations and deaths are well below their peak numbers from the past year. So far, 24,100 Pennsylvanians have died of COVID-19, according to the Health Department, including 74 additional fatalities reported on Monday. Nearly 1 million Pennsylvanians have been infected.

Bill Johnston-Walsh with the state AARP said a survey of its members produced a harsh assessment of what he called the “confusing, complicated and challenging” vaccine distribution program in Pennsylvania, including jammed phone lines, crashed websites and overbooked schedules.

“We cannot stress enough how difficult this process has been for so many Pennsylvanians,” he told the legislative committee.

Many older people struggle to navigate online appointment systems, said Adam Marles, chief executive of LeadingAge PA, an umbrella group of more than 370 providers that serve some 75,000 older residents of Pennsylvania.

Those living in affordable housing or on their own in isolated settings can face particular challenges, he said. In some places, he said, residents can get vaccines while others living nearby cannot.

“The anxiety, frustration and confusion for seniors, their families and those serving them is only exacerbated because of the inconsistency paired with the lack of a plan,” Marles told lawmakers.

In other coronavirus-related news:

Local and federal officials toured a mass vaccination clinic in Philadelphia on Tuesday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The site will be run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is set to open Wednesday.

The opening comes as the city hit a milestone with more than 200,000 people having received first doses and more than 100,000 residents fully vaccinated with second doses. City officials said they hope the FEMA site, which will remain open at least through the end of April, can vaccinate up to 6,000 people a day.

People will receive email invitations with a link to schedule appointments if they have registered for the vaccine and fall within the city’s priority categories, said Dr. Thomas Farley, the city’s Public Health Director. The city is working with its software providers to stop people from sharing those invitation links to sign up for appointments, saying they’ve already seen a problem with people trying to “cut in line.”

Farley also announced that the city would ease its restrictions on certain gatherings including large outdoor events for the second time in less than a week, in an attempt to keep pace with state-issued restrictions.

The Philadelphia Phillies issued a release Tuesday quickly after the announcement saying the 20% capacity limit will mean more than 8,500 fans will be allowed in the stands at Citizens Bank Park for opening day. Fans will be seated in small groups with large gaps in between groups, and tickets are scheduled to go on sale March 12 for the team’s first 19 home games.

Associated Press writer Claudia Lauer contributed to this report from Philadelphia.

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