COVID-19 vaccine in Pa: Which counties got the most doses — and which ones got the least?
Finding a vaccine appointment is like hitting the lottery for thousands of Pennsylvanians.
And, in the first six weeks of vaccine distribution, residents in a handful of counties had no chance of getting vaccinated against COVID-19 without leaving their home county.
An analysis of state data found that four rural counties didn’t receive any vaccine doses in the first six weeks of the bungled roll-out, and the majority of doses were sent to health care systems who focused solely on inoculating employees.
More than a third of vaccine doses sent out in Pennsylvania through late January went to three counties: Allegheny, Lehigh and Montgomery, which together are home to 2.4 million people. Removing Philadelphia County from the equation — the county receives its vaccine doses directly from the federal government rather than the state — those three counties comprise 21.5% of Pennsylvania's population. .
Getting vaccine to the right people has been a problem that health officials struggle to solve.
“There’s a logistical challenge,” said April Hutchinson, director of communication for the Pennsylvania Department of Health. “This is a system that’s going to need to be built up over time. The limiting factor in all of this is vaccines, and how do you distribute 166,000 new doses of vaccine across the Commonwealth to get it into the arms of the people who need it?”
Through Jan. 22, there were about 1.01 million doses of vaccine distributed to more than 450 providers across the state. At that point, about 388,000 Pennsylvanians had received at least one dose of vaccine, with about 99,000 receiving both. In total, 585,691 doses had been administered by Jan. 22.
The state uses a formula to determine how to allocate vaccine among counties and providers based on the previous allocation of vaccine, the amount on hand for distribution, the amount administrated, the population, the amount of the population 65 and older, the county's percent positivity and its death rate.
The initial wave of distribution focused on health care systems, Hutchinson said, in addition to a federal program designed to get workers and residents of long-term care facilities vaccinated.
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The Lehigh Valley Health Network received more than triple the amount of vaccine than the next highest recipient, the Allegheny County Health Department, which includes Pittsburgh.
Hutchinson said that Lehigh Valley has been experimenting as a hub-and-spoke model, where the health system received a bulk amount of vaccine and distributed it to providers in as many as 11 surrounding counties.
“You see a very effective hub-and-spoke model happening in northeast Pennsylvania in the Lehigh Valley,” she said. “Lehigh Valley Health Network has folks in very rural parts of northeast Pennsylvania and are able to effectively administer and provide a throughput to those communities as well.”
Hutchinson said the state is working to set up hub-and-spoke delivery systems in the state’s more rural counties, where vaccine has been scarce.
'Just not enough'
By late January, no provider in Clinton, Forest, Snyder or Sullivan counties had received a single dose to administer to health care workers, older adults or those with serious health conditions. Some counties, like Northumberland, received fewer than 100 doses of vaccine per 10,000 residents.
Julie Swann, department head and professor of industrial and systems engineering at North Carolina State University, said there have been issues across the country because the demand for vaccine has been so much higher than the supply. Swann has focused much of her recent research on analyzing the public health impacts of COVID-19 and was a science advisor for the H1N1 pandemic in 2009.
“Depending on how the providers are making that vaccine available to the public, if it requires somebody to make lots and lots of phone calls or to be on a computer to get the vaccine, then I believe that’s driving some of the inequities,” Swann said. “It requires you to not only be geographically a reasonable distance with a car, if you need a car, but to also have that technology or time to really figure out how to get that vaccine.”
The means of delivery are also a problem, as are pockets of inventory that might crop up because no one knew how many people would actually want the vaccine, Swann said. Some areas might have a larger amount of vaccine proportionate to their population, but the demand isn’t as high for various reasons. Meanwhile, one county over, everyone wants a shot, she said.
Getting vaccine in general is difficult, Swann said, but getting it to the places and people who need it the most is an exercise in logistical frustration.
“A third of your population is competing for 5% of vaccine,” Swann said. “There’s just not enough.”
And that’s going to stretch out the timeline for all Pennsylvanians to be vaccinated. Initially, state officials had hoped that everyone who wanted a shot would be vaccinated by late spring or early summer. While officials won’t say when they think that mission will be accomplished because of uncertainty about vaccine distribution from the federal government, they know that May or June is unlikely.
“It’s going to take more time than I think we had thought,” Hutchinson said. “I think we had a realistic time frame, but still I think that folks want it to happen more quickly.”
Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for the Beaver County Times. You can reach her quickly at email@example.com. Give her a follow on Twitter @DK_NewsData