Democratic criticism of the Wolf administration’s management of the vaccine rollout escalated on Thursday, as a group of elected officials continued to voice frustration that Philadelphia’s collar counties have been undersupplied compared to less populated counties.
Thursday’s press conference in Delaware County included federal and state elected leaders in addition to members of the county council, underscoring the rising stakes. Some officials like State Senator Amanda Cappelletti (D – Montgomery/Delaware) and Senator Anthony Williams (D – Delaware/Philadelphia) expressed disappointment that verged on outrage.
“I’ve been doing this for over two decades,” Williams began. “And this is the first time that I can recall our entire delegation — that means federal, state, local, Democrat and Republican — coming together all on one issue — the first time. Which should suggest to those listening: there’s a problem. And the problem is now a crisis.”
Most of the press conference attendees were Democrats, but State Rep. Chris Quinn was one Republican in attendance. He offered more direct comments about the Wolf administration and the Department of Health.
“Disorganized, chaotic, inequitable — that only begins to describe the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s vaccination allocation and the administration’s process.”
This is the first time that I can recall our entire delegation — that means federal, state, local, Democrat and Republican — coming together all on one issue — the first time. Which should suggest to those listening: there’s a problem. And the problem is now a crisis.
– State Senator Anthony Williams
County leaders in the Southeast met with acting Health Secretary Allison Beam on Sunday to discuss the lower vaccine distributions after the Philadelphia Inquirer published a data analysis illustrating disparities between highly populated suburban counties and less dense rural ones.
“Delaware County, population 566,747, had received just 9,113 doses per 100,000 people as of Wednesday,” the Inquirer reported. “That’s two-thirds less vaccine than in tiny Bradford County, with 60,323 people on the New York border.”
A day later, county leaders took the unusual step of issuing a joint statement saying that the weekend meeting with Beam “was both disappointing and frustrating.”
They went on to say the’re asking for three things: a transparent explanation of the data that is driving distribution decisions; a plan to bring lagging vaccine levels in their counties up to par; and a plan to ensure “that no vaccine provider moves on to vaccinate 1B individuals (beyond the teachers and educational support personnel) until all counties in the Commonwealth have received sufficient vaccine to vaccinate their 1A population.”
Gov. Wolf is denying the claim that the southeast counties have been underserved.
Many of the elected officials at Thursdays conference, like newly elected State Senator John Kane (D – Chester/Delaware), addressed the concern of mixed messages coming from the administration.
“Today, a member of the Department of Health wrote that it didn’t matter who was giving vaccines as long as residents were getting them,” Kane said. “Well, it does matter. Because who is giving the vaccines determines who does, and more importantly, who does not have access to it.”
However, Kane at one point also commended the DOH and the county council for the difficulty of the circumstances, saying “there is good work being done” and pointed to a rising 7-day average of doses administered in the area.
U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D) said her office was working with the county to stand up a community vaccination site, which ultimately might allow some vaccines to be routed directly from the federal government to the county.
She announced that ChesPenn Health Services would be joining a federal program to administer vaccines.
“Over the next few weeks, we expect to see hundreds, if not thousands of additional vaccines coming into the county, not through the state where we’ve had the frustrations, but directly from the federal government,” Scanlon said.
Amidst this scrutiny, the leadership of the Pennsylvania DOH has become less available. Lawmakers were upset Wednesday after the DOH did not send a representative to participate in a committee hearing on the vaccine rollout. Rep. Gary Day (R) of Lehigh County said Acting Health Secretary Allison Beam refused to accept a call from him, despite his pledge to limit the talk to six minutes.
Still, many elected officials said the DOH had increased its availability to talk with county leaders and others since the beginning of the year.
On Wednesday, Montgomery County Commissioner Chairwoman Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, a Democrat, said the county has not had any “official response” from the DOH to the four-county press release on Monday.
“The County has received this week the same amount of vaccine that we received for the last several weeks,” Arkoosh said. “So there’s been no change in our allocations.”
Arkoosh also complained about the DOH’s inability to describe the formulas or calculations behind the allocations. Her colleague, Councilman Ken Lawrence Jr. (D) asked for help from the press.
“I would encourage everyone to ask the department of health to explain [the allocation formula],” Lawrence said on Wednesday. “And if you all understand it, then you could explain it to us. It was as clear as mud, and we’ve gotten no follow-up or transparency since.”
Philadelphia has not been in the midst of this controversy because it receives its apportioned vaccine directly from the federal government.
Even though much of the current discontent was set in motion by the Inquirer’s data analysis, warning signs of an intra-party clash had been flashing for weeks.
As Broad + Liberty reported in mid-February, a group of Democratic state senators announced they would back legislation to compel the DOH to create a statewide vaccine registry, which the administration had seemed reluctant to initiate on its own.
“For weeks, my colleagues and I have urged the Department of Health to make changes to the vaccine rollout, including more centralized registration, distribution and oversight systems,” state Senator Maria Collett (D-Bucks, Montgomery) said at the time.
Days later, a cohort of U.S. representatives from the southeast sent a letter to Wolf, asking “that you explore adopting best practices from other states and jurisdictions that might speed up vaccine deployment.”
“It is beyond time to remedy the lagging supply of vaccines and meet the demands of Pennsylvania’s 6th,” Houlahan said on her Facebook page.
Rep. Frank Farry says he and 13 other Republicans in the Delaware Valley have called for the National Guard to be activated to help with vaccine distribution.
All of these problems have sprouted for Beam after another failure that put several thousand Pennsylvanians at risk of not being able to complete their full vaccine regimen. Beam announced on Feb. 17 that providers had inadvertently administered second “booster shot” doses as first doses.
The press conference announcing that mistake, however, “left reporters exasperated with more questions than answers,” according to one media report.
NPR reporter Brett Sholtis summarized one of the confusing moments in a tweet.
“Reporter @deannadurante asks how many doses are we talking about?” Sholtis began. “@PAHealthDept Alison Beam responds. Reporter says “that doesn’t answer any of the questions I asked you.” Beam says it was roughly 200,000 doses, but then says a bunch of stuff people don’t seem to understand.”
On many occasions during the press conference, Sen. Williams implied that a course correction had to happen.
“Frankly, thus far we’ve been polite, even with people literally bringing us to tears, personally, when we have to listen to them on the phone or read their letters. That will not continue.”
In Bucks County, Republican State Rep. Frank Farry said he’s introduced legislation that would order the DOH to distribute vaccines on a per-population basis, but acknowledged that the legislative process might be too slow to remedy the situation.
In light of that, Farry says he and 13 other Republicans in the Delaware Valley have called for the National Guard to be activated to help with vaccine distribution.
“Our concept was if we can’t rely on the Department of Health to get this done — and our National Guard obviously works with planning and logistics, it’s part of what they do — so, why not put the planning and logistics in the hands of people who have expertise in it?” he told Broad + Liberty.
Delaware County Council Chairman Brian Zidek (D) had to jump in and answer a question as to whether the Wolf administration was simply “running out the clock” and hoping a flood of vaccines later would mollify the grievances.
“I’m not going to try into Governor Wolf’s head, or that of his administration, but we are making clear — and I think reasonable — requests, and [we] hope and trust that they will be met.”
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at tshepherd at broadandliberty.com, or use his encrypted email at shepherdreports at protonmail.com.