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State expands COVID-19 vaccine eligibility

The state Department of Health announced Tuesday that those age 65 and older, as well as those age 16 to 64 with serious health conditions, will be able to receive their vaccinations effective today, under the updated phase 1A vaccine distribution guidelines.

This means that there are approximately 3.5 million Pennsylvanians in phase 1A for vaccination eligibility.

Cindy Findley, deputy secretary for Health Promotion and Disease prevention and head of the COVID-19 Task Force, said that conditions like cancer, chronic kidney disease, smoking, type 2 diabetes, heart conditions, obesity, sickle cell and pregnancy are considered to be high-risk conditions and now fall under the eligibility guidelines for the vaccine.

A full list of conditions and persons who are eligible are on the DOH website. In addition, there is an interactive map on the website that provides locations and contact information for clinics and hospitals that are distributing the vaccine.

The guidelines have been adapted, and will continue to be adapted, by the government to help the more vulnerable populations because they have a higher risk of being hospitalized and dying from the virus.

President-elect Biden and the administration is also in favor of this expansion, according to Findley.

“We want to ensure that the vaccine is provided to Pennsylvanians in a way that is ethical, equitable, and efficient,” Findley said. “That is why we are taking this phased approach.”

Findley also stated in a press briefing that the state not only approved a retail partnership with Rite-Aid pharmacies to be able to expand the distribution of vaccines, but that the state is also looking into “mass vaccine clinics.”

“The state Emergency Management Agency is working on setting up mass vaccine clinics,” April Hutchinson, DOH director of communications, said. “It is a massive effort to be able to do that.”

But the amount of vaccines need to be available in order to be able to have these clinics.

She added that the allocations coming from the federal government have remained the same with no increases and the vaccines remain limited.

The retail partnership with Rite-Aid is different then the federal partnership with CVS Pharmacies and Walgreens.

The federal partnership is helping out with vaccinating the long-term care and nursing facilities and the retail partnership will be able to help the distribution to those not affiliated with health care, health care systems or facilities — especially those who are in the newly adapted phase 1A.

“We want you to get vaccinated as quickly as possible,” Findley said. “We are well aware we don’t have enough vaccines to meet the demand (at this time).”

She added that there is no timeline as to when the state will move from phase 1A to phase 1B as there are “still a number of people to vaccinate” in phase 1A, including a number of community health care workers.

Findley and the state urge health care workers in phase 1A to get their vaccines.

“We are looking at those who haven’t received allocations and are trying our best to get vaccines out to those places,” she said. “We must have patience. It will be taking several weeks…the more we receive, the more we can engage with our partnerships, the more we can engage with getting mass vaccination clinics.”

“While we are waiting, we must keep up our efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 by masking up, washing hands and maintaining social distancing,” Findley said.

To discern eligibility, or to schedule a vaccination, visit the Department of Health’s website, www.health.pa.gov.

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