HARRISBURG – The Wolf Administration’s efforts to care for residents of long-term care facilities was called into question again today during a joint Senate hearing regarding the state’s stunted rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee, chaired by Senator Michele Brooks (R-50), and the Senate Aging and Youth Committee, chaired by Senator Judy Ward (R-30), heard testimony on the state vaccine distribution plan from representatives from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, hospitals, long-term care advocates and pharmacies.
The hearing included testimony on a wide range of issues, including delays in administering first doses after they have been allocated to the state; abrupt changes in guidance and vaccine eligibility criteria from the state; a lack of information on providers who have available doses of the vaccine, particularly for older Pennsylvanians who are not familiar with new technology; inadequate supply of vaccines from the federal government; ensuring providers adhere to guidance and provide vaccines only to eligible individuals; and expanding vaccine access to rural areas.
“The hearing today was very constructive in identifying how the department can move forward on a quicker and more accessible path, to help Pennsylvanians who want to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in a way that is more streamlined and less chaotic,” Sen. Michele Brooks said. “In my ongoing discussions with the department, I will continue to advocate for significantly larger vaccination clinics and a more nimble local process.”
The struggles of long-term care facilities to vaccinate residents and staff was the most prominent area of discussion. Senator Ward shared her frustrations about how the slow roll-out of the vaccine is impacting the residents of these facilities, who have suffered immensely throughout the pandemic.
“I feel like it’s déjà vu because providers testified before us last year about their struggle to obtain PPE and testing for vulnerable residents,” Senator Ward said. “Now providers are pleading once again to the state to get help with vaccines. They are in an awful position of waiting, while their residents don’t have that kind of time on their side.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control data tracker, as of the day of the hearing, Pennsylvania ranked 45th in the percentage of received COVID-19 vaccines administered.
Pennsylvania Health Care Association President and CEO Zach Shamberg testified that only 32 of the state’s 1,200 assisted living facilities and personal care homes have been scheduled or received their first vaccine, and approximately 150 of the state’s 700 nursing homes have not completed their first vaccination clinic.
Shamberg pointed out that while many long-term care residents have been unable to receive the vaccine, the Pennsylvania Department of Health has expanded the list of people who are eligible for the vaccine to include a broader number of Pennsylvanians, including smokers.
“It is our understanding that only 17 percent of the vaccine has been allocated to long-term care thus far. If that is ‘prioritization,’ I hate to think where the general population falls in this plan,” Shamberg said. “Every day without a vaccine is one more day in which we risk the lives of our most vulnerable residents.”
Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Michael Ripchinski testified that the abrupt changes in guidance from the Department of Health complicated efforts to vaccinate vulnerable populations.
“When the Department of Health initially set vaccination guidelines for providers, it outlined that the initial limited vaccine supply be given to those most at-risk of illness, such as older adults, health care workers, and Pennsylvanians living in long-term care facilities,” Ripchinski said. “Frankly, the health systems and vaccine providers were not ready for the abrupt change and the public believed that they could now somehow get their vaccination faster than before.”
Adam Marles, President and CEO of LeadingAge PA, said the state’s lack of a clear distribution plan left many long-term care providers scrambling to schedule vaccinations.
“Conflicting messaging about whether personal care homes and assisted living residences were included or not in the state’s priority phasing in the vaccination plan happened for more than three weeks,” Marles said. “The inconsistencies in access and vaccine administration have left tens of thousands of seniors without a plan for how to receive vaccines.”
“It is clear, when reviewing the revised iterations of Pennsylvania’s vaccine distribution plan, that there is still no plan to improve access to the vaccine for seniors living in congregate settings,” he added.
Peter Becker Community CEO Suzanne Owens described her frustrations about residents not being scheduled to receive vaccinations until March 8. The timeline for her facility was eventually moved up after public outcry resulting from a TV segment highlighting their struggle. However, many similar facilities have not seen the same consideration, she said.
“There is no possible reason that it can be seen as acceptable that such a high percentage of long-term care residents await vaccination on this date in February,” Owens said. “The Department of Health should abandon the system they put in place to vaccinate long-term care because it isn’t working… Why is our most vulnerable and isolated population so neglected?”
Pennsylvania pharmacists raised concerns about their inability to get enough doses of the vaccine. Bretton Walberg, owner of Walberg Family Pharmacies in Mercer County, outlined a process that allowed them to administer more than 2,500 doses of the vaccine in about 20 hours through community clinics. However, getting the necessary number of doses to conduct these clinics remains a challenge.
“Our common goal of vaccinating our community members as quickly as possible is 100 percent achievable when we have the vaccine available to us. We urge you to let us keep doing what we do best,” Walberg said. “We cannot sit back and let the vaccine take up freezer space. People need vaccinated as quickly as possible.”
Lehigh Valley Health Network Executive Vice President and Chief Physician Executive Dr. Robert Murphy, Jr. said their health system has the capacity to deliver up to 30,000 vaccinations a week if an adequate supply of doses is available. However, he urged the state not to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to determine vaccination distribution.
“Vaccine distribution should be based on an organization’s ability to quickly and efficiently distribute vaccine to the largest number of people across the largest region,” he said. “U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data show that LVHN hospitals were caring for the most COVID-19 patients in our communities for many months. That makes us more motivated than ever to get the vaccine to our community.”
Murphy also highlighted the efforts of the health network’s mobile vaccination teams to vaccinate vulnerable community members in skilled nursing and long-term nursing facilities.
Providers offered several suggestions to improve the state’s distribution plan and ensure more vaccines are distributed to eligible Pennsylvanians quickly and efficiently. Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam expressed a willingness to explore new options to improve the state’s distribution plan.
The Wolf Administration has been criticized repeatedly throughout the COVID-19 crisis for failing to protect residents of long-term care facilities. The COVID-19 mortality rate for nursing home and long-term care residents in Pennsylvania remains among the highest in the nation.
Hearing video and written testimony is available at www.pasenategop.com.
CONTACT: Cheryl Schriner (717) 787-5490