Eyeing efficiency, Pa. announces change in the way it distributes COVID-19 vaccines to providers

(Sylvia Owusu-Ansah, an emergency department physician at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, receives Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, Mon., 12/14/20)

Pennsylvania has enlisted more than 1,700 pharmacies, hospitals and health systems across the state to administer COVID-19 vaccines – but under new policies the state announced Friday, it’ll be giving a greater share of doses to partners that dole them out most quickly. 

Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said that the state’s plan to temporarily winnow down its vast provider network to just 200 or 300 locations will “progressively come into effect” starting next week. 

The policy change may mean that there will be fewer locations across the state where Pennsylvanians can book vaccine appointments, and that patients could have to travel farther to get their shots. 

But Beam said shifting the state’s vaccine supply to high-performing locations “is the most efficient way to get people vaccinated quickly.”

“We have 1,700 providers who have stepped up and stand with us in vaccinating Pennsylvanians,” Beam said. “With the limited number of vaccines … we need to make sure that we focus on the providers that are able to reach communities quickly.”

It’s unclear just how many providers will see a change in their vaccine supply in the coming weeks. 

Though the Department of Health has officially enrolled 1,700 partners in its vaccine program, Beam said that “a much smaller” number of locations are currently receiving vaccines, due to the state’s limited supply. 

She did not say exactly how many providers have been receiving doses. The Department of Health stopped making that data public earlier this month, saying it was too difficult to provide accurate information about the quick-shifting vaccine supply.

The agency will evaluate its providers under new regulations that take effect Friday, which require them to administer 80 percent of their first-dose supply within one week of receiving it.

Beam’s order also reminds providers that they need to report demographic data for each person they vaccinate, including their age, gender, race and ethnicity. 

Providers that don’t comply with those provisions could see their vaccine allocations dwindle. 

Beam’s late-afternoon announcement came nearly two months into Pennsylvania’s rocky vaccine rollout. 

The state has said it amassed a large network of pharmacists and doctors offices to make its vaccine program convenient, equitable, and inclusive. 

But members of the public say the patchwork system is difficult to navigate and forces them to compete for coveted slots. 

Each provider has its own system for booking appointments, which offer consumers varying degrees of ease and accessibility. Not all providers translate their materials into languages other than English, and many senior citizens say they’ve had difficulty navigating websites. 

Beam acknowledged Friday that Pennsylvanians have been frustrated with the state’s sign up options. But the Department of Health does not have plans to create a centralized website for booking appointments.

Beam said many providers have asked the state not to create its own software, and to let them continue to use their own technology. 

Starting next week, however, the Department of Health will require vaccine providers to offer bookings online and over the phone. 

“We want to make sure that it’s not just an online system, or a phone line that guides you to an online system,” Beam said. “We want to make sure that the phone line is staffed by real, live individuals that will be able to take your information and schedule an appointment for you.”

State Sen. Maria Collett, a Montgomery County Democrat who formerly worked as a nurse, said she’s encouraged by some of the changes Beam announced Friday. But in a written statement, she said Beam still failed to explain “many deficiencies” in the state’s vaccine program. 

Collett said the Department of Health needs to provide more details about how it distributes its vaccine supply among providers. It also needs to tell the public how it’s enforcing accountability for those providers, and ensuring that vaccines only to patients who meet the state’s current eligibility guidelines. 

“Until we have clearer specifics on how this order will be applied to ensure that providers are required to be good actors within the system, I’ll continue amplifying the experiences that fuel the lingering distrust among community members,” Collett said. 

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