Who's getting vaccinated in Pennsylvania? It depends on where you live

Daveen Rae Kurutz
Beaver County Times

Three months into a statewide vaccination effort, and state officials are still struggling to get shots in the arms of all Pennsylvanians equally. 

As of March 26 — the most recent data available — more than a quarter of Pennsylvania residents in 66 counties had received at least a partial dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That doesn't include Philadelphia County, where vaccine rollout has been primarily managed by the federal government in partnership with city government. 

While state officials laud Pennsylvania's vaccination program, data from the Pennsylvania Department of Health indicate there's a disparity in who is getting vaccinated. Sixteen counties have seen fewer than one in five residents become at least partially vaccinated, while eight others have seen about one in three — or more — residents receive at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot. 

Retired nurse Kathy Harrison, of Butler, administers a COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine during a clinic at Cumberland Woods Conference Center in McCandless Township.

"Inequity of distribution isn't happening in just one specific region," said Dr. James Boyle, an internist with UPMC Passavant. "Every county, every region, has its own special issue or population where getting access and providers for vaccine takes effort."

At the top of the list is Montour County, where at one point there were more first doses of vaccine sent than there were residents because of hefty shipments sent to Geisinger Danville for distribution to other facilities. As of late March, 42.8% of the county's 18,230 residents were at least partially vaccinated, with a whopping one-third of residents — 6,149 — fully vaccinated. 

At least a third of residents in smaller counties such as Sullivan, Elk and Cameron, are at least partially vaccinated, as is about a third of residents of the state's second largest county, Allegheny County. Similar numbers are seen in Lehigh and Northampton counties. 

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Of the 10 counties with the highest vaccination rates, half have a population of at least 150,000 residents. Conversely, only two of the 10 counties with the lowest vaccination rates have a population over 150,000 — Beaver and Monroe counties. Meanwhile, just over one in five York county residents have been vaccinated.

The skewed distribution of shots in arms is what spurred the state to change how it's distributing vaccine, said Maggi Barton, deputy press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health. 

Andre Ellis a Wesley Enhanced Living Doylestown housekeeping employee receives the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine recently.

"The Department of Health is laser-focused on getting vaccine to Pennsylvanians to all corners of the state," Barton said in an email. "While the supply of vaccine remains extremely limited, instead of giving very few doses to a lot of different providers each week we will be giving larger quantities of vaccine to fewer providers. By doing this, we will get more vaccine administered across the state."

Changing how vaccine is distributed will help make sure that at least 95% of the state has close access to a vaccine provider within two miles in an urban area, five miles in a suburban area and 30 miles in a rural area, Barton said. 

"This is a temporary shift until the supply of vaccine catches up to the demand," Barton said. "At that point, vaccine will be available for all of the providers."

A shortage of vaccine remains a problem for getting shots in arms, local leaders said. 

Bucks County Commissioner Bob Harvie said that the county has vaccinated nearly 30% of its adults, but could do more if the state would give them more vaccine. The county is in the middle of the pack, as far as vaccine rates, while neighboring counties like Montgomery and Chester counties are above average. 

"Obviously, we would love to be vaccinating more people, and we do feel as if Bucks County has not received the doses it should have," Harvie said. "We have four vaccination sites up and running and vaccinated over 3,000 people on Tuesday. There is one more site we could stand up very quickly if we had more vaccine, and a sixth site we are planning to open in a few weeks. That sixth site is also dependent on vaccine supply."

It's unclear now how many doses of vaccine are being sent to individual counties. Some health systems are using a hub-and-spoke model where they are sharing vaccine doses among multiple vaccine clinics, some of which are in different counties than they were initially sent. 

That's what's happening at UPMC, where Boyle said there were previously 31 vaccine providers to receive allocations each week. Now, that's cut in half and health officials have had to pivot to share resources across county lines. 

UPMC nurses Taylor Bajus of Gibsonia, left, and Carol Leake of Saxonburg prepare to deliver vaccines to patients at a  drive-through clinic set up in the parking lot of the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex Wednesday in Cranberry Township.

The health system has been working to make more vaccine accessible to Beaver, Butler, Lawrence and Mercer counties, Boyle said, Butler County is among the counties with the highest vaccination rates statewide, but Beaver and Lawrence are both struggling. That could be due to vaccine reluctance, health officials said, but also availability of shots. 

"We have 10,000 people on our waiting list for the UPMC Passavant clinic, and 1,600 are from Beaver County," Boyle said. "We're working to get more people vaccinated."

Bucks County Courier Times reporter Marion Callahan contributed to this report. Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for the Beaver County Times. You can reach her quickly at dkurutz@timesonline.com. Give her a follow on Twitter @DK_NewsData