Amid partisan acrimony over pandemic, a bipartisan vaccine team says it’s hopeful for the future

By: - February 23, 2021 7:16 am

COVID-19 vaccine joint task force members Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster; Rep. Bridget Kosierowski, D-Luzerne; Sen. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia; and Rep. Tim O’Neal, R-Washington.

Since Pennsylvania started inoculating healthcare workers against COVID-19 in mid-December, the state’s vaccine rollout has been waylaid by cumbersome technology, mismanaged inventory, and winter weather delays

But if you ask a bipartisan group of lawmakers how they feel about the mammoth task that will help Pennsylvania emerge from the pandemic, they’ll offer something unusual: a unified hope that better days lie ahead.

“I certainly understand the frustration, but I am cautiously optimistic that we’re pointing in the right direction,” Rep. Tim O’Neal, R-Washington, told the Capital-Star on Monday. 

O’Neal is one of the four state lawmakers whom Gov. Tom Wolf tapped earlier this month to join officials from the Governor’s Office and Department of Health on a joint task force for COVID-19 vaccines. 

Charged with improving communication between the Wolf administration and the General Assembly as Pennsylvania builds a statewide vaccination program, the task force has met multiple times a week since Wolf announced its creation on Feb. 9. 

Its members have already helped the administration decide how to overcome one major snafu, when it revealed last week that mistakes in managing inventory had led to a shortage of second-dose shots for patients receiving the Moderna vaccine. 

Their next meeting is set for Tuesday. There, the Wolf administration is due to present a draft strategic plan to guide mass distribution across the state. Wolf spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger said that document will build on the Department of Health’s current, interim plan and prepare Pennsylvania for the day when vaccines are more widely available. 

The four lawmakers who sit on the task force told the Capital-Star that they hear the concerns of Pennsylvanians who have had difficulty getting vaccinated as doses remain in short supply nationwide. 

But they all said they’re encouraged by their nascent collaboration with the Wolf administration. They’re also confident that the state can make vaccine distribution more efficient and equitable before manufacturers hopefully augment their stockpiles this spring.

“My sense is that probably in mid- to late March, we will be in a much better position in terms of creating predictability in vaccine distribution,” Sen. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia, said Friday. “[That’s] still contingent upon knowing how much we will get once we have it, but I hope in mid-March and thereafter we will be in a much better place.”

Wolf gets good grades for transparency

The Democratic Wolf administration has taken heat over the last year from lawmakers in the General Assembly, who say Wolf left them – and the public – in the dark while wielding executive powers to respond to the pandemic. 

O’Neal counts himself among those critical of Wolf’s pandemic response. That’s why the former Army Ranger said he was “pleasantly surprised” when administration officials offered detailed explanations of the state’s vaccine strategy, and took seriously feedback that lawmakers brought to task force meetings.

“The [Wolf] administration had, to a large degree, taken a ‘go it alone’ type of approach” since the start of the pandemic, O’Neal said. “Whether it’s experience at this point or something else, I think this task force is a departure from that.”

State Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, said last week that he’s “extremely pleased with the level of engagement” that Wolf and Acting State Health Secretary Health Alison Beam have offered task force members.

The two Democrats on the panel, Haywood and Rep. Bridget Kosierowski, D-Lackawanna, agreed, saying in separate interviews that Wolf and Beam have been receptive to the concerns they’ve brought on behalf of their constituents this month. 

But still, communication could be better

Each of the four task force members independently said they hope to improve communication between the Wolf administration and its wide network of vaccine providers. 

The state has enlisted more than 1,000 pharmacists, community health centers, hospitals and doctors’ offices to vaccinate Pennsylvanians against COVID-19.

But state officials have only been able to allocate vaccine doses to a sliver of them, which lawmakers said has bred confusion and distrust among the public. 

The Department of Health also said poor communication from their staff was at least partially to blame for a mix-up that came to light last week, when the agency said as many as 100,000 immunizations could be delayed because providers had mismanaged stocks of Moderna vaccines.  

“A lack of [communication] creates anxiety and fear and misunderstanding,” Kosierowski, a former nurse, said Friday. “That’s what I – and we – am trying desperately to change.”

The lawmakers said their new assignment comes with a steep learning curve as they try to make sense of a massive public health operation that has no precedent in recent history. Aument and Kosierowski, for example, said they were still fuzzy on how exactly information flows between federal agencies, state officials, and vaccine providers. 

But both agree it’s incumbent on the state to avoid miscommunications. Aument said he expects the coming weeks will bring a “dramatic improvement” in the way the Department of Health communicates with the public and with its healthcare providers. 

Next step: mass vaccinations

The four lawmakers on the task force hope that Pennsylvania will soon be responsible for managing a larger volume of doses than it is now, as manufacturers ramp up production and federal regulators potentially approve more vaccines currently undergoing clinical trials. Haywood expects the task force may be asked next month to weigh in on which groups should receive priority for vaccines as more shots become available. 

A more robust supply of vaccines will inevitably bring its own challenges, as the state tries to staff mass vaccination sites. Haywood also hopes they’ll roll out mobile clinics to reach neighborhoods underserved by health providers.

The lawmakers on the task force will have a say in those logistics as it works with the Wolf administration to update its strategic plan for vaccinations. Kensinger, the Wolf spokeswoman, said the document the task force will discuss Tuesday aims to provide “a clear roadmap to vaccination for all Pennsylvanians” by laying out logistical blueprints for providers and patients.

But unlike previous vaccination plans the Department of Health has followed, this one will be subject to review from the legislative branch, represented by the lawmakers sitting on the task force. Once approved, “it will reflect the members’ shared vision for this once-in-a-generation vaccine rollout,” Kensinger said.

Federal officials say it will likely be months until vaccines are widely available. But lawmakers want the pandemic-weary public to know that they’re working now to prepare for that day, whenever it may come.

“We have all hands on deck attempting to move in the same direction,” O’Neal said. “This is really the opportunity for Pennsylvania’s government to show the citizens we can work together to address one of the biggest, if not the biggest, issues the Commonwealth has faced.”

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.