LANCASTER, Pa. – A once empty department store in a shopping mall here has found new life as Lancaster County’s first mass vaccination site, distributing 500 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as it opened its doors on Wednesday.
Calling it a “really good example of what local folks can do,” when they come together to fight the pandemic, Gov. Tom Wolf visited the site with other state and local officials to praise the collaboration involved in creating the center.
It’s located in the former Bon-Ton department store at Park City Center, on the outskirts of downtown Lancaster. Wolf also discussed local transportation initiatives to get Pennsylvanians to vaccination centers.
“We start with a problem right at the outset,” Wolf said, referring to how nationwide, demand for vaccines continues to drastically outweigh supply. He said he hopes that “events and facts” bear out President Joe Biden’s promise that everybody who wants a vaccine should have one by the end of May, and that Pennsylvania’s weekly allocation of vaccines from the federal government continues to increase rapidly.
“We want to make sure that we have the infrastructure that’s ready to help do that, and we’re all working hard to identify barriers that might prevent Pennsylvanians from being vaccinated,” Wolf said. “We’re taking affirmative steps to break down those barriers so that when we do have enough, that the supply is no longer the problem, the infrastructure and the system that we have for rolling that vaccine out is not a problem.”
The Lancaster County Community Vaccination Center is operated by the Vaccinate Lancaster Coalition, comprised of Lancaster County government, Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, Penn State Health, UPMC, WellSpan Health, and the Lancaster City and County Medical Society. Rock Lititz manages logistical planning, and TriStarr Staffing handles staff recruitment and management.
When vaccine supply is able to meet demand, the coalition says the center will be able to vaccinate up to 6,000 people per day. Lancaster County residents are instructed to register on VaccinateLancaster.org or by calling 717-588-1020 to be placed on a waiting list. Once registered, individuals will receive a message to schedule an appointment when they are eligible.
For now, the coalition anticipates it will only be able to vaccinate up to 1,000 people per day because of limited supply. In light of the center’s opening this week, the Department of Health allocated 5,900 additional doses of vaccine to Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health.
Lindsey Mauldin, a senior advisor to the state Department of Health, said that Pennsylvanians should use the department’s Your Turn tool to determine when they are eligible to receive the vaccine, and to subsequently find a provider.
Wolf named transportation as the second biggest challenge to vaccine accessibility, and noted efforts by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the South Central Transit Authority, and local Offices of Aging for efforts to make sure all Pennsylvanians have a no-cost way to get to a vaccination center.
In Lancaster County, Red Rose Transit will offer free transportation to the vaccination center for as long as it’s open, SCTA executive director David Kilmer said.
PennDOT Deputy Secretary Jennie Granger urged seniors to look into the Shared Ride program, offered in 39 of the state’s 67 counties.
“Our efforts demonstrate what is possible for the future of public health,” Dr. Michael Ripchinski, chief clinical officer of Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health and site director, said, adding that the center is “unsurpassed anywhere in the Commonwealth.”
More than 3,000 people have asked to volunteer or work for the effort, Dr. Ripchinski later told the Capital-Star.
“We’ve really structured our effort around performance improvement,” he said. “We huddle several times a day… We take the notes from those huddles and we incorporate them into our process improvements.”
“As we stand here in the warmth of an early spring day, I believe that a spring of hope is upon us,” Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, said.
Aument spoke about being selected by Wolf to serve on the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, a bipartisan committee of one legislator from each caucus, along with Sen. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia, Rep. Bridget Kosierowski, D-Lackawanna, and Rep. Tim O’Neal, R-Washington.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect … but I have been pleased that the governor has used the Task Force as a platform to take feedback here from this community, feedback from the members of my caucus, to the Task Force,” Aument said. “He’s used the Task Force as a decision-making body. As the governor said, we don’t always agree. But we have an opportunity to bring dissent, bring other points of view to the table.”
The limited supply of vaccines has prompted some county officials to theorize that the state isn’t allocating them the proportion of vaccines that they deserve.
Among them is Lancaster County Commissioner Josh Parsons, who has been vocal on social media about his belief that Lancaster County is being shortchanged by the state. His statement upon learning of Wolf’s pending visit to the vaccination center stands in contrast to Wednesday’s remarks about collaboration and bipartisanship.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic we have asked for his collaboration between his administration and counties rather than conflict. We have asked for a go it together approach rather than his go it alone approach,” Parsons said Monday on Facebook and Twitter. “The state does not have to do anything other than send us the vaccines. Lets hope they change course and decide to do so.”
Asked about Parsons’ comments, Aument and Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, did not appear to share his concern.
“The near-term challenge absolutely has been the overall demand exceeding supply,” Aument said. “I think as we see the supply increase, as we see sites like this, up and running, I believe that we will see the vaccination numbers here at this site and all across Lancaster County dramatically increase.”
“The governor and the administration has been fair in what they’ve been doing, from my experience, ever since they’ve taken office,” Sturla said. “This is about Pennsylvanians. It has nothing to do with county lines, it has nothing to do with personalities, it has nothing to do with any of that. This is about Pennsylvanians getting vaccinated …. I think everybody should take every bit of effort they have, and devote it to trying to make sure that all Pennsylvanians get a vaccination.”
“If you look at the number of people in Lancaster County who have been partially and fully vaccinated you’ll see that it is about 14 percent of the population; 15 percent is the state average,” Health Department spokesperson Barry Ciccocioppo told the Capital-Star.
“The data shows that people in Lancaster County are getting the vaccine at about the same rate as the rest of the state. And at a higher rate than the national average of 10 percent of the population. As far as the rollout of vaccines in Pennsylvania, according to the latest data from the CDC, we are right where we should be, delivering more vaccines to residents than 44 other states,” Ciccocioppo said.
The COVID-19 Vaccine section of the department’s website includes multiple data sets, updated daily or weekly, about vaccine distribution across the state, in addition to explaining the methodology the department uses to allocate it equitably. Under “Vaccine Provider Locations,” the public may view spreadsheets uploaded weekly that show all vaccine deliveries across Pennsylvania. That information can also be viewed on an interactive map showing exact locations and contact information.
“The administration appreciates Vaccinate Lancaster’s collaboration to ensure that residents can quickly and efficiently receive the vaccine,” Wolf spokesperson Elizabeth Rementer told the Capital-Star. “Much like this collaborative effort, we encourage counties and entities involved in these efforts to collaborate by sharing ideas and information to help establish more sites across the commonwealth.”
Correspondent Lauren Manelius covers Lancaster County for the Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter @El_Manels.