Here's why the Pa. House GOP is pushing back on state's plan to text vaccine reminders
Pennsylvania House Republicans are pushing back on plans by the state Department of Health to text a quarter of a million residents who have not received their second COVID-19 vaccination dose.
Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said Thursday that the department would begin texting reminders to about 255,000 Pennsylvanians next week, but the House Republican Caucus released a statement Friday raising privacy concerns based on recent data leaks.
“Millions of Pennsylvanians have admirably stepped up to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, but no Pennsylvanian, even those partially vaccinated, gave permission to the Wolf administration to send them a text message or provide their private health and personally identifiable information to a third-party vendor or anyone else,” said House GOP spokesman Jason Gottesman.
“Given this administration’s shoddy track record of protecting Pennsylvanians’ private health and personally identifiable information,” he said, “questions remain about how this information is being stored, who is facilitating this text messaging program, and what assurances have been provided that this information is being kept secure.”
Beam said on Thursday that, “Getting that second dose is important to protect against the Delta variant,” which is more transmissible than the initial virus variant.
The department said Friday that starting early next week text messages are expected to be sent to those who received their first dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines between Dec. 14, 2020, and May 14.
Previous data breach
Gottesman didn’t offer examples of where the Gov. Tom Wolf administration has stumbled on protecting health data, but in April the Health Department confirmed that the personal information of 72,000 Pennsylvanians was leaked in a data breach.
The state said that Insight Global, an Atlanta-based vendor contracted by the department in March 2020 for $29 million to provide contact tracing and other similar services, disregarded required security protocols and created unauthorized documents outside of the secure data systems created by the state.
Consequently, the unauthorized documents existed separately from the official contact tracing data that Insight Global employees were collecting and providing to the Department of Health within secure data platforms.
In his statement, Gottesman said Pennsylvanians who received the first dose of the vaccine “deserved better” than to have their personal information unknowingly shared and used to track their vaccination status.
“While everyone is committed to stopping the spread of this virus and associated variants, including through a robust vaccine deployment,” Gottesman said, “this is nothing short of bait and switch by the Department of Health that does nothing to further confidence in the vaccine distribution process or the security of private information given to providers or government entities.”
Pa. data breach:What you need to know after COVID-19 contact tracing info leaked
'A pivotal moment'
Health Department spokesman Barry Ciccocioppo said that Wolf and leaders from the House and Senate bipartisan vaccine task force sent a letter on Thursday to the Legislature urging them to encourage their constituents to get vaccinated.
“We are at a pivotal moment in this pandemic, a moment that has already passed in states like Arkansas, Missouri and Louisiana, where we can either stand by as COVID evolves into a disease that hospitalizes people at rates rivaling the COVID we knew in 2020,” the letter states, “or we can redouble our vaccination efforts and work together to protect the progress we have made and avoid the consequences of widespread infection.”
Officials in the letter asked lawmakers to promote vaccines through social media, at events and in newsletters.
“That’s where the House GOP should be focusing, not fearmongering that spreads disinformation and puts people at risk,” Ciccocioppo told the USA TODAY Network on Friday.
Ciccocioppo said Pennsylvania reported eight deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday and there are almost 500 people hospitalized and more than 1,000 new cases, which he said were mostly preventable with the vaccine.
“We cannot stress the importance of eligible Pennsylvanians getting vaccinated to stop the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “We are committed to do everything possible to save lies and stop COVID-19, we would hope the House GOP will join the fight.”
J.D. Prose is a reporter with the USA TODAY Network's Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.