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Pennsylvania vaccine rollout: Seniors, those with medical conditions now eligible. What you need to know

James McGinnis
Bucks County Courier Times

This article was updated Jan. 19, 2021.

Distribution of the coronavirus vaccine is not guided by a national campaign, and this has led to confusion as states and some cities operate different programs.  

Expect changes. Plans to distribute vaccines could be revised with the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and may also be affected by number of vaccine available in the coming weeks or months.  

Here’s the what we know now: 

Where are we with distribution? 

Some 448,151 Pennsylvanians were vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Jan. 11, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s 3.5% of state residents who have received the first of two recommended injections of the vaccines.  

When can I get a vaccine? 

On Jan. 19, the Pennsylvania Department of Health changed the vaccine distribution plan to include seniors ages 65 and older, pregnant women, and millions of state residents with medical conditions. You are included in the current phase if you have cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), Down Syndrome, heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies, immunocompromised state (weakened immune system) from solid organ transplant, obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 30 kg/m2 or higher but < 40 kg/m2), severe obesity (BMI ≥ 40 kg/m2), Sickle cell disease or Type 2 diabetes.

The current phase 1A also includes nurses, doctors and school nurses, as well as residents and staff of long-term care facilities.  

Next up are essential workers, such as teachers, first responders, postal workers, clergy, public transit workers, grocery store employees, manufacturing workers and those who care for people in early child care and adult day care programs are Phase 2.  

In phase 1C, vaccine could also be distributed to public safety workers, government workers, bank and finance workers, elected officials and judiciary employees, legal workers, media workers, communication workers and public health workers. 

Finally, phase 2 will then allow anyone vaccines for anyone ages 16 and older. Officials hope to reach Phase 2 by late spring.  

Why is it taking so long for vaccines to make their way to the general public? 

Pennsylvania officials say that the number of vaccine doses they receive doesn’t line up with what they’re being told they will receive from the federal government. Additionally, the state is receiving larger numbers of doses than they could distribute before the holidays, Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said. “I think it was always going to be a challenge during those two to three weeks to be able to administer the vaccines that were sent to us,” she said. Pennsylvania is waiting for federal funds to contract with healthcare workers to administer vaccines to residents in the 1B and 1C groups, Levine said. 

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How soon could it be available to the general public in places such as the Philadelphia? 

Cities such as Philadelphia get a different vaccine supply and are operating and distributing vaccines separate from the state campaign. “I think it’s going to be the second quarter of 2021, somewhere between March and June,” said Dr. Charles Cairn, dean of the Drexel College of Medicine, of the vaccine rollout in Philadelphia. 

What about more rural parts of Pennsylvania? 

"The Pfizer vaccine is recommended to be stored at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit," said Cairns. "The Moderna vaccine is stable at normal freezer temperatures." That could slow delivery to more rural parts of the Pennsylvania, said Cairns.   

Is it safe? 

The CDC maintains a public database of adverse reactions to COVID-19 vaccines as well as other medications. As of Jan. 19, vaccines were given to 8.9 million Americans. Adverse reactions were reported in 6,741 persons – or fewer than 0.05% – of those who got vaccinated. The most common side effects were pain and swelling at the injection site, chills, fatigue, fever and headache, according to the CDC. 

Does the vaccine work against new strains – or variants – of the virus?  

“Based on our present knowledge, we believe our current vaccines will be effective against these strains,” said Dr. Henry Walke, director of the Division of Preparedness and Emerging Infections at the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. 

“Viruses constantly change through mutation,” said Walke. “We expect to see new variants emerge over time.” 

What happens when you get a vaccine? 

You’ll get a vaccination card with the day and time of your first injection. You’ll also get a fact sheet about the specific type of vaccine you received. Some of the earliest approved vaccines require two upper arm injections, which are administered a few weeks apart. 

Who should not get a vaccine? 

If you’ve previously had any type of reaction to a vaccine, you should talk to your doctor before getting a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the CDC.   

When I get a vaccine, can I take off my mask? 

Not immediately. It can take one or two weeks after vaccination for the body to build an immune response, said Dr. Jason Diaz, virologist at La Salle University.  

Why aren’t kids on the priority list for vaccines? 

"The people who are most susceptible are older people," said Cairns. "If you’re looking to prevent death, you want to get it to older people." 

If I previously tested positive for the virus and recovered, should I get a vaccine?  

Unknown. "There a lots of questions here," said Cairns. "Among them, we don't know how long the protection will last." 

Will I need a coronavirus vaccine every year such as the recommended annual flu vaccine?  

Unknown, said Cairns. "We do know that the virus has mutations." 

Am I completely protected after vaccination?  

“You still have a small risk of getting COVID even after getting vaccinated,” said Diaz. “If you do get sick with COVID after having been vaccinated, the severity of the disease will be much less.” 

How long do I have to wait between vaccine doses? 

Currently, that depends on which vaccine you receive. If you get a Pfizer vaccine, there’s a three week wait between doses. The earliest healthcare workers who were vaccinated in December began receiving their second doses this week. For those receiving the Moderna vaccine, there’s a four-week waiting period.  

Do I have to receive two doses of the same vaccine? 

Yes. 

Can the vaccine expire? 

Yes, if it isn’t used in a certain amount of time. Pennsylvania officials say they have a plan to make sure that if there are extra doses of the vaccine not being used at a specific site that will be reassigned to other first responders. 

How long will it take to produce enough vaccine for the entire U.S. population? 

Unknown.