11 Investigates: Chaos in Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout

11 Investigates: Chaos in Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout

PITTSBURGH — Health officials statewide have repeatedly said their goal is to get as many COVID-19 vaccines into arms as possible, but Pennsylvania’s expansion of Phase 1A may be slowing down the process.

On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Department of Health expanded the first phase to include people 65 and older and those with serious medical conditions such as cancer and COPD. With the change, 3.5 million people are now eligible, but the state is only receiving around 140,000 doses per week, a fraction of what’s needed.

“There’s a sense of, ‘Wow, I see the light at the end of the tunnel.’ Unfortunately, the first three days of the light at the end of the tunnel was just a train coming at us,” Chuck Nachreiner said.

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Nachreiner spent last week in the hospital due to heart failure. After days on the phone, his wife finally got an appointment in Mercer County six weeks from now.

His story is similar to many in southwestern Pennsylvania trying to find the vaccine. On Jan. 12, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced the expansion of vaccine eligibility to include anyone 65 and older. The Pennsylvania Department of Health started matching its own guidelines to those set by the federal government. The changes were finalized on Tuesday and that’s when the problems accelerated.

By the next day, health care providers reported being inundated with phone calls from newly eligible people trying to get the vaccine. The doses simply aren’t there, however.

“Was it a mistake to expand Phase 1A at this point when there just isn’t the vaccine needed?” asked 11 Investigates’ Aaron Martin.

“I wouldn’t say it was a mistake, but I would say in hindsight we should have had some better communication with folks involved,” said state Sen. Jay Costa, who hosted a virtual town hall on Thursday. “I think the Department of Health has to be more forthcoming in explaining to folks exactly what the nature of the available vaccines are.”

The doses the state is getting are far below what is needed to vaccinate the 3.5 million Pennsylvanians in Phase 1A.

Since the announcement from the DoH, Channel 11 has made several requests to interview state health leaders, asking if there were concerns that expanding Phase 1A without the necessary supply would cause confusion. Those requests have gone unanswered as people continue scrambling to find an available shot around the region.

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