Levine: Nursing home vaccines underway as testing, new cases see holiday slump

Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine speaks during a press conference inside PEMA headquarters on Monday, Dec. 28, 2020.

Residents and staff at more than 120 Pennsylvania nursing homes are on track to receive on-site COVID-19 vaccinations starting this week, kicking off a federal pharmacy partnership that officials hope will speed vaccine distribution statewide. 

State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine told reporters Monday that the vaccination program being carried out by Walgreens and CVS pharmacies largely is in the hands of the federal government, which chose the pharmacy partners and decided which facilities would be the first to receive immunizations. 

Representatives from Walgreens and CVS will work with nursing home partners to schedule vaccines, coordinate staffing, and secure consent from patients, Levine said. 

Pennsylvania kicked off the federal partnership on Monday, which Levine previously said was the date federal officials assigned to the state. Other states began administering vaccinations in nursing homes earlier this month. 

The partnership will eventually expand to include other long-term care facilities, including assisted living facilities and homes for disabled adults. 

But Levine said state officials have “no particular influence” over the timeline. Instead, it’s up to Operation Warp Speed, the coalition of federal agencies overseeing vaccine development and distribution, to choose vaccine sites, and to pharmacy partners to report their progress. 

“This is really the federal government’s program,” Levine said. “[They] have required facilities to opt in to the partnership, and we have worked to opt in all eligible facilities.” 

Statewide, more than 72,762 healthcare workers have received vaccines as of Monday, Levine told reporters.

While the Christmas holiday did slightly slow the speed of vaccine distribution, Levine said 58 hospitals are slated to receive shipments of more than 47,775 doses from Pfizer and 26,100 from Moderna this week.

Levine also reported Monday that the state continued to see a downward trend in new COVID-19 case counts. The Department of Health reported 3,779 new cases Monday and 4,884 new cases Sunday – an apparent improvement from earlier this month, when the state saw as many as 10,000 positive COVID-19 tests daily.

However, Levine said hospitals across the state continue to face significant strain from the winter case surge. State data show that 5,905 Pennsylvanians with the disease are currently hospitalized, including 1,145 in intensive care units. 

The state also reported 203 new deaths from COVID-19 over the weekend, for a total of 15,086 fatalities since the start of the pandemic.

Slumps in new cases are typical during weekends and over holidays. And Levine said even modest progress in containing the disease could be jeopardized if Pennsylvanians gather for New Year’s celebrations. 

“This weekend’s numbers and today’s numbers are certainly influenced by decreased testing over Christmas and the weekend,” Levine said. “We have been seeing a plateau and slight decrease, and those are very positive findings, but we are concerned that we could see an increase again in January if people do not stay the course.”

Levine said officials would decide by the end of the week whether to extend Pennsylvania’s current mitigation measures beyond Jan. 4, when they are currently set to expire. Those measures – which prohibited indoor dining and gatherings of more than 10 people – have been in effect since mid-December.