There is growing frustration from county leaders and public safety directors over the lack of information coming directly from the state Department of Health on the initial rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.
While area hospitals have been tasked with leading the charge in vaccinating first responders and frontline health care workers, there is confusion among many county officials on the amount of new doses that will arrive in the next few phases and when.
Better communication with the state’s health department on the number of vaccines available and their arrival at area hospitals would also be helpful in Washington County, according to Jeff Yates, director of the county’s public safety department.
“It would make it easier to plan,” he said of the need for better communication. “Some of this we’re still ramping up. It’s tough because we don’t know what’s coming. Our game plan is we’re putting the list together who’s a priority.”
He said Mon Valley Hospital received about 1,000 doses and Washington Hospital received double that number in the “1A phase” that includes frontline health care workers, long-term care facilities and some emergency responders. Yates is unsure when more doses may be coming, although Centerville Clinics and Cornerstone Care are also administering the vaccine, he said.
They’re also unsure when they should move into the subsequent phases that state officials announced Friday afternoon.
Gov. Tom Wolf and Health Department Secretary Rachel Levine announced the updated plan with two subsequent phases that will begin vaccinating more frontline workers and senior citizens in the general public.
“The updated plan will help us to act swiftly and efficiently when we reach the next phases of the vaccine distribution,” Wolf said. “We are doing everything we can to make sure this process is as smooth and quick as can be. We also want to make sure it’s as fair as can be.”
Levine announced the new “1B phase” that is next and will vaccinate people who are 75 and older, along with anyone with significant health issues that make them more susceptible to the coronavirus. That phase will also be open to other frontline workers, such as jail guards, postal workers, grocery workers and transit workers, among many others. The upcoming “1C phase” will be open to people 65 and older, those with high-risk medical conditions, pregnant women and other frontline workers.
They offered no specific dates on when those new phases will begin, although it could be several months before they’re completed.
Levine said the state has received 820,300 of the two approved COVID-19 vaccines, but it’s ultimately up to the federal government on the amount of doses they receive and the timing.
“We must have patience ... because the amount of vaccines available to Pennsylvania is limited (and) up to Operation Warp Speed,” Levine said, alluding to the federal government’s coronavirus task force that fast-tracked the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Mon Valley Hospital spokesman Andrew Bilinsky said their vaccine program was in a “holding pattern” awaiting more doses of the vaccine and they’re unsure when they would arrive.
“We’re waiting to find out how many more doses we’re going to get,” Bilinsky said.
Local public safety officials in the region want to see the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency more involved in the process and working in tandem with the Department of Health to speed up the process and provide better communication.
Yates pointed to his department’s effort in spearheading the rollout of the H1N1 vaccination a decade ago, and said they could assist hospitals now in inoculating the general public once more vaccines become available.
He said Washington County officials are building a “central repository” to track the number of people vaccinated through the initial phases to move the process along smoothly. But that is becoming more difficult due to the lack of coordination with state health department officials.
“Our role here is really trying to coordinate the efforts,” Yates said. “We’re kind of working in generalities. There are going to be people who fall through the cracks, people who change their minds or people who don’t have time.”
PEMA Director Randy Padfield said Friday that coordination with local public safety departments will be critical once the mass vaccination phases begin.
“No one agency or government can do it all to sustain such a complex event,” Padfield said. “It is going to require everyone working together and working with all the tools in our disposal.”
Greene County Commissioner Mike Belding said there has been confusion from the start, as the plans apparently changed just before the vaccine distribution began in mid-December.
“My understanding is the Department of Health came up with a plan that they’ve been working on for quite some, and then at the last minute, they abandoned it and threw it to the hospitals,” Belding said. “So it’s been thrown to the medical facilities. Now we’re trying to figure out what to do.”
Counties without a local health department, such as Washington, Fayette and Greene, must rely on the state for guidance, he said. But the lack of communication between state and county leaders has been “frustrating” and left them in a lurch at times. Belding was not even sure how many Greene County first responders or residents have been vaccinated so far.
But the county is prepared to assist hospitals when needed or set up mass inoculation centers at the fairgrounds or county airport once the vaccine is available to the general public.
“We offered as much support to hospital units as we can,” he said. “However they want to do it, we’ll support them.”
Meanwhile, Roy Shipley, director of the Fayette County Emergency Management Agency, said they have more questions than answers from state health officials.
“No answers, no timeframe. Nothing,” Shipley said. “They need to work together as a collaborated effort.”
He said WVU Medicine’s Uniontown Hospital and Highlands Hospital in Connellsville have received a total of 900 vaccines through the first phase, and they’re ready to move forward with more vaccinations whenever they’re available.
“It’s not something new. We’ve been through this,” Shipley said. “I don’t think they’re getting the vaccines out fast enough. We all need to be connected on it. We’re fielding the questions out here and sending them up to the Department of Health, and we’re not getting any replies.”