Pennsylvania expands vaccine eligibility to 65 and older
Even as it struggles to deliver shots into arms, Pennsylvania is expanding initial eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine to include people age 65 and over as well as younger people with serious health conditions that put them at higher risk, state health officials announced Tuesday.
The Health Department said its updated coronavirus vaccine plan tracks recommendations from the federal government, but it was uncertain how the expanded rollout would work given the slow pace of vaccinations so far and limitations on supplies.
Some 3.5 million people are now eligible to get the vaccine; the state has vaccinated about 409,000.
“We must have patience as the amount of vaccine available in Pennsylvania and throughout the nation remains limited,” Cindy Findley, a deputy health secretary who leads the state’s vaccine task force, said at a media briefing.
“We are well aware we don’t have enough vaccine to meet the demand at this point,” she said.
The state had been directing the COVID-19 vaccine to health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities, a process that continues. Tuesday’s announcement adds to the initial rollout people aged 65 and older, and those between the ages of 16 and 64 with a range of health conditions, including cancer and diabetes, as well as pregnant women, smokers and clinically obese people.
LeadingAge PA, a trade group representing more than 365 long-term care facilities in Pennsylvania, questioned the timing of the expansion, given that many older residents of personal care homes and assisted living facilities haven’t yet received an initial dose of the vaccine.
“We are fearful that today’s announcement will make a devastatingly slow process for vaccinating the individuals living in these settings worse,” said Adam Marles, the group’s CEO.
Allegheny County, where tens of thousands of health workers still await vaccination, will continue to prioritize those workers “until vaccine supply increases significantly,” said Dr. Debra Bogen, the county’s health director.
Pennsylvania has received more than 1 million vaccine doses from the federal government since last month, and its weekly allocation has remained steady at about 140,000 per week, according to the state Health Department.
The agency has set up a website where residents can take a brief quiz to see whether they are eligible for the vaccine and use an interactive map to find the nearest vaccine provider.
The major statewide expansion came amid word that the state’s top health official, Dr. Rachel Levine, had been picked by President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to be his assistant secretary of health.
Levine became a familiar figure to many Pennsylvanians over the last 10 months of the coronavirus pandemic, explaining what the state was doing to combat the spread of the virus and begging residents to do their part by wearing a mask, washing their hands and staying away from each other.
Levine is one of the few transgender people nationwide serving in either elective office or as a high-ranking government appointee.
She leaves the Health Department at a critical time in the statewide response to the pandemic, with the state reporting hundreds of deaths per day and officials trying to ramp up statewide distribution of the two vaccines.
Levine “has been a wise, calm, and dedicated partner during this pandemic and I couldn’t be prouder of the tireless work she’s done to serve Pennsylvanians,” tweeted her boss, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. “She will be missed, but I know she will be a tremendous leader” on the federal level.
There was no immediate word on her replacement. The governor’s office said it planned to make an announcement later in the week.
Levine, a pediatrician who joined the Wolf administration in 2015 as physician general, was the public face of the state’s COVID-19 response and won plaudits for her calm, unflappable demeanor.
But she also earned plenty of enmity from Republicans and small business owners over statewide public health orders for people to stay at home, students to learn remotely, and businesses deemed “non-life-sustaining” to close.
And she faced tough questions over the high COVID death toll at nursing homes, with some Republicans contending the state didn’t do enough to protect vulnerable residents. The state has reported more than 19,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19, over half of which have occurred in nursing homes. Levine defended her agency’s handling of the outbreak.
“I am extremely proud of the work we have done during the last year to save lives in the face of the COVID-19 global pandemic,” she said in a statement announcing her nomination Tuesday.
Some of the criticism of Levine had nothing to do with her decisions as health secretary. As a transgender woman, she endured a stream of mockery and abuse on social media and elsewhere. She opened a news conference last July by addressing the transphobia that was being directed toward her.
“I want to emphasize that while these individuals may think they are only expressing their displeasure with me, they are in fact hurting the thousands of LGBTQ Pennsylvanians who suffer directly from these current demonstrations of harassment,” Levine said at the time.
Associated Press reporter Marc Levy in Harrisburg contributed to this story.