Levine stresses holiday caution as vaccine stock grows

Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine speaks during a press conference inside PEMA headquarters on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020.

Though Pennsylvania is set to ramp up COVID-19 vaccine distribution in rural areas and hard-hit nursing homes over the next two weeks, the state’s top health official said it is “more important than ever” for residents to stay home as holiday gatherings beckon.

“Until everyone can get vaccinated, we need everyone to stand united,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said during a virtual press briefing Monday. “We cannot let our guard down. We must continue to follow our personal and collective responsibility to each other to prevent the spread of this virus.”

Levine issued her warning as Pennsylvania health care facilities continue to struggle under the strain of a month-long COVID-19 surge. The state reported a two-day total of 15,100 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, as well as 156 deaths over the same period. 

More than 6,000 Pennsylvanians are currently hospitalized with the disease, including 1,230 in intensive care units, state data show.

Pennsylvania’s current public health orders, which have shuttered gyms, movie theaters, and indoor dining at bars and restaurants since Dec. 12, are set to lift on Jan. 4. But Levine said state officials may extend them if holiday gatherings over the next two weeks lead to a surge in new cases. 

“If everybody does the right thing … [and] pretty much stays home during the holidays, then things look much more hopeful for January,” Levine said. “If people travel, if they have large or small gatherings, then we’ll be more challenged.”

Two federally approved COVID-19 vaccinations do offer the state “a light at the end of the tunnel,” Levine said. But they don’t give Pennsylvanians license to shed their masks or gather in big groups, she added. 

More than 17,700 Pennsylvania healthcare workers have received the first course of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine since the state received an allotment of 97,500 doses last week, Levine reported Monday. 

Those vaccines were distributed among 87 hospitals statewide, which will store the remaining doses until they’re administered to more healthcare workers. 

Every healthcare worker who received a first vaccine is guaranteed to receive the second dose, Levine said Monday. 

The state also expects shipments containing 30,225 more Pfizer doses this week. Next week, the state will launch an initiative with CVS and Walgreens to administer Pfizer vaccines on-site at nursing homes, which have been hotbeds of infection since the beginning of the pandemic.

A trade group representing long-term care facilities statewide said on-site vaccinations would prevent needless deaths among residents and caregivers. But Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, said Pennsylvania lagged behind other jurisdictions in launching the CVS and Walgreens partnership, which is already underway in a dozen states.

“Every day without a vaccine is one more day in which we risk the lives of our most vulnerable residents,” Shamberg said in a prepared statement. “Pennsylvania must do better.”

Federal regulators approved a second vaccine late last week, this one from Massachusetts-based drug manufacturer Moderna. Pennsylvania is set to receive 198,000 Moderna doses starting this week, Levine said – enough to vaccinate 99,000 people.

Levine said the Department of Health would announce Monday which hospitals will receive the Moderna vaccines. But she said rural hospitals will likely get priority for those doses, which, unlike the Pfizer formula, do not need to be stored at hyper-cold temperatures. 

State health officials have warned that limited refrigeration capacity in rural areas could pose challenges to vaccine distribution. 

Right now, healthcare workers and nursing home residents are first in line to receive the nation’s limited supply of COVID-19 vaccines. 

A panel at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined over the weekend that elderly people and frontline workers such as teachers, police and grocery store employees should get priority during the next phase of vaccine distribution, which is set to begin in January. 

Levine reminded journalists Monday that it will be months until drug companies produce enough vaccines to immunize the general public. 

Until that day comes, Levine said it’s essential for Pennsylvanians to continue practicing public health strategies that are proven to reduce transmission.

“Until enough of the community is immunized, we need people to wear masks, practice social distancing, and wash their hands,” Levine said.