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State vaccine allocation overwhelmed

Tuesday’s expansion of eligibility for Pennsylvanians to receive a COVID-19 vaccine has left many state residents asking “How can I get the vaccine?”

The answer is not clear-cut, and involves a lot of waiting.

On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Department of Health expanded the list of eligible recipients of the COVID-19 vaccine to include more than just healthcare workers.

Now, all adults older than 65 years are eligible for the vaccine. Meanwhile, Pennsylvanians aged 16-65 with certain pre-existing conditions can receive one of the two COVID-19 vaccines: Either the Pfizer vaccine or the Moderna vaccine.

The qualifying pre-existing conditions include cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and down syndrome. It also includes heart conditions such as heart failure, coronary artery disease or cardiomyopathies.

Finally, it also includes people suffering from a weakened immune system, such as those recovering from a solid organ transplant, blood or bone marrow transplant, those with immune deficiencies and HIV.

Finally, people who are obese, severely obese, pregnant, have sickle cell disease, smoke, and have type 2 diabetes mellitus are eligible for the vaccine.

That opens the floodgates to a whole host of people now able to receive a vaccination. However, officials at local hospitals and pharmacies said it could be awhile before anyone other than healthcare workers receive the vaccine.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is responsible for allocating vaccine doses to its vaccine providers, which includes locations such as UPMC Williamsport, Jersey Shore Geisinger, River Valley Health & Dental and local Weis Pharmacies.

Jersey Shore Geisinger currently has the most reported doses in the county, having received 11,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine, according to the Department of Health.

Those looking to receive a Moderna vaccine from the Geisinger system must self-schedule through the MyGeisinger app. If they have received care from the Geisinger system but have not yet set up a MyGeisinger account, patients can do so by visiting myGeisinger.org and clicking “sign up.” Anyone interested in receiving a Moderna vaccine from Jersey Shore’s Geisinger hospital should visit geisinger.org/COVIDvax.

Individuals without a computer or access to the internet can alternatively call the Geisinger COVID hotline at (570) 284-3657; however, because of high demand, it may take some time for patients to be processed by phone. Individuals who have never received healthcare from the Geisinger system but who want to receive a vaccine from Geisinger must call that same number.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Geisinger hospital at Jersey Shore has administered 1,177 vaccines to patients, while the Geisinger system has administered 27,885 vaccines in all, according to Marc Stempka, Geisinger Media Relations.

However, the expansion of eligibility for the vaccine did not come with an increase in allotment in doses, according to David Lopatofsky, chief medical officer at UPMC Williamsport. Although UPMC wants to move onto vaccinating people beyond healthcare workers, it just is not possible due to the supplies it has.

“Our health system is absolutely committed and enthusiastic to get as many vaccines in the arms of patients and community citizens as soon as we’re able to,” Lapotofsky said.

UPMC Williamsport has vaccinated hundreds of medical personnel in its system, as well as several other medical personnel outside its system including EMS workers and private practice doctors, according to Tyler Wagner, public relations manager at UPMC Williamsport.

To-date, UPMC Williamsport has received 2,925 doses of the Pfizer vaccine from the state. The hospital will continue to target healthcare workers until it has been allocated enough vaccines to push onto those with vulnerabilities in the Greater Williamsport Region.

According to Tyler Wagner, public relations director at UPMC Williamsport, the hospital has not yet begun a waitlist for non-healthcare workers to receive the vaccine. UPMC Williamsport is focused on completing vaccinations among its staff until it receives additional allocations that will allow it to process members of the general public.

Since Dec. 23, River Valley Health and Dental have been allocated at least 500 doses of the Moderna vaccine. They are preparing to allow newly eligible patients to receive the vaccination.

“We’re in the process of notifying our patients and changing the website page to include a form to get on a list of people,” James Yoxtheimer, president and CEO of River Valley Health & Dental. “Those who qualify now, it’s really like a first-come first-serve basis.”

Yoxtheimer said River Valley Health & Dental is able to administer around 50 vaccines per day, or 250 per week, and are hoping to double that within the next week.

Those interested in receiving the Moderna vaccine from River Valley Health & Dental can visit https://www.rivervalleyhealthanddental.org/covid-19-vaccine.html.

“Try to be patient. We have more than 1,500 people on our waiting list–some of those folks are perfectly healthy adults–but nonetheless, it’s going to be a while before the vaccine is in everyone’s arms, as they say,” Yoxtheimer said.

Interested members of the public are able to receive Moderna vaccines from Weis Market locations in Lycoming County, despite conflicting information from the Department of Health that says vaccines are not yet available at those locations.

A Weis Markets press release explains those seeking a vaccine from a Weis Pharmacy should go to https://www.weismarkets.com/pharmacy-services and sign up for an appointment with an immunizer. At varying points throughout Wednesday and Thursday, the link for scheduling an appointment in Pennsylvania informed users that all appointments are full, and that they should check back the next day for availability.

As of Thursday afternoon the state Department of Health does not list Weis Markets as having received doses of the vaccination on its map, and does not list how many doses were received by Weis on its spreadsheet of allocations.

According to weismarkets.com, the Montoursville, Jersey Shore and Muncy Weis Markets are among the select Weis Markets that will be offering the vaccine; however, according to the Department of Health, those locations have not yet been allocated vaccines to be distributed.

The Williamsport RiteAid is in a similar boat. According to the Department of Health’s COVID map, the Williamsport RiteAid is offering vaccines; however, the Department of Health does not list the Williamsport RiteAid as receiving any doses of the vaccine in the last several weeks.

Those interested in receiving a vaccination at RiteAid must wait in an online queue at https://sr.reportsonline.com/sr/riteaid/PS2021.

“The biggest thing is patience through this process,” said April Hutcheson, the director of communications with the Department of Health. “We’re trying to get vaccines to as many people as possible.”

Hutcheson explained 86 percent of COVID-19 related deaths have occurred in people older than 65 years.

“We know there is an urgency. Everyone wants the vaccine, but we just have to be patient,” Hutcheson said. “We’re just trying to open vaccination up to as many people as possible.

As of Thursday afternoon, many Department of Health webpages remain out of date with Tuesday’s guidance.

According to Maggi Barton, the Deputy Press Secretary of the Department of Health, facilities that administer the vaccine request the amount of doses they would like to receive.

The Department of Health then assesses current allocations, then takes into account storage and amount administered in order to determine a new allotment, Barton said.

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