More than 2,600 people in Centre County have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, but uncertainties remain about when exactly more will be vaccinated — either in the current phase of the Department of Health’s distribution plan or in future phases.
On Friday, Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine outlined the latest update to the state’s vaccination distribution plan. With little control over when new shipments arrive and how much is received, the state has not committed to any specific timelines for distribution, though it will likely be months before vaccines reach the general population.
“Vaccinations are an important tool in stopping the spread of COVID-19, and the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency have done a lot of hard work to facilitate a smooth, strategic vaccine rollout,” Wolf said in a statement. “But most of the vaccine distribution process is controlled by the federal government and unfortunately, that means there are a lot of unknowns.’
Phase 1A, the current phase of distribution, includes health care-related personnel and long-term care facility residents and workers.
In phase 1B under the updated plan, the vaccine will be made available to all residents age 75 and older, first responders, corrections officers, people living and working in congregate settings, clergy and workers in food and agriculture, education, grocery stores, public transit, childhood and adult day care and the U.S. Postal Service.
Phase 1C will include those ages 65-74 and individuals with high-risk conditions, as well as essential workers in more than a dozen other sectors.
Phase 2, the final phase, will provide the vaccine to all individuals age 16 and older who were not covered in the previous phases. Currently the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine is approved for ages 16 and older, while Moderna’s is approved for ages 18 and older.
Even as vaccines are being distributed in the current phase, there are challenges to overcome, Mount Nittany Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Nirmal Joshi said in an interview on Friday.
Mount Nittany has administered nearly 2,000 initial doses of the vaccines as of Friday morning. It first received 1,223 doses of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, which it distributed to providers and staff at the medical center. About two weeks later, Mount Nittany received 1,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine, which it used to expand the vaccination program to community health care providers and staff such as Centre Volunteers in Medicine, Centre County emergency medical personnel, physicians, dentists and school nurses.
Through Friday, about 700 doses had been administered to community health care personnel not affiliated with Mount Nittany.
But as it goes through its own phases of distribution within the state’s 1A phase, Joshi said it’s challenging to know when to move from one group to the next.
About 80% of Mount Nittany staff responded to a questionnaire saying they would get the vaccine if offered.
‘When we began to go out and set up to actually deliver the vaccine though a substantially lesser number of people, to start with, actually showed up to get the vaccine,’ Joshi said. ‘But then slowly as they began to get more information, as they began to see their peers get it, those numbers began to go up quite well.
‘The dilemma was at what point do you go from this group to this group, and when this group catches up will it become a famine instead of a feast at that point? The real challenge has been there is this lag phase where we don’t know how many in a certain group will actually get it as opposed to them saying they’ll probably get it.’
Long-term care facilities are receiving the vaccine through the Federal Pharmacy Partnership. In Centre County, Centre Crest, Foxdale Village, Juniper Village at Brookline and The Village at Penn State have so far received vaccine shipments, according to the health department.
Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital in Pleasant Gap also received its own shipment of vaccines, while Geisinger and Penn State Health employees in Centre County would receive the vaccine via their systems’ hospitals outside of the county.
In total, 2,606 vaccines have been administered in Centre County, with 2,183 receiving one dose so far and 423 already getting the required second dose.
Joshi said hospitals that received an initial shipment were guaranteed a second to provide the second dose. Mount Nittany began administering second doses on Friday to personnel who already received the initial dose.
Mount Nittany administered all of its initial Pfizer vaccine shipment and was still working its way through the remaining doses of the first Moderna shipment. The health system has been able to vaccinate all who met phase 1A criteria and requested the vaccine, Joshi said.
Joshi does not know exactly when Mount Nittany will receive its next shipments and the hospital must wait for authorization from the state before it can move on to the next phase.
‘We have people knocking on our door to say ‘When can I get it?” Joshi said. ‘Beyond broadly 1A there has been no information other than that. We’ve had direct conversations with the Department of Health and they’ve been quite candid with us in explaining this is where we are, this is where we are likely to go next. They’ve been very approachable and we’re thankful for that. But in terms of getting a specific timeframe to say ‘OK when can I move to 1B? When can I move to 1C?’ that information has not been there.’
With widespread vaccinations still months away, Joshi said those who do receive it now are told to continue following mitigation measures such as mask-wearing, avoiding gatherings and frequent hand-washing because even though they may not get sick, they could potentially still transmit the virus to someone who is not vaccinated.
And those mitigation measures will be vital over the coming months as the county and state try to drive down community spread and hospitalizations.
Last month, Mount Nittany admitted 245 COVID patients, 102 more than in November. So far in January, the hospital has admitted 55.
But Joshi said he has seen some ‘mildly optimistic signs’ in recent days. At one point in late December nearly half of the hospital’s patients were COVID-positive and it reached a daily high of 73 COVID inpatients in late December. But daily census numbers have dropped and on Friday the medical center had 41 COVID inpatients, between the ages of 34 and 98.
‘We are just keeping our fingers crossed and hoping it stays that way because we are in that post-New Year’s window of 14 days,’ Joshi said.
As COVID hospitalizations soared, Mount Nittany announced it was canceling all elective surgeries and procedures through January. Joshi said, however, that the health system may reevaluate that as early as Monday.
‘We are acutely aware that there are patients who are waiting to get elective surgeries done,’ Joshi said. ‘No one is more concerned about that — other than the patient— than us… If the trend stays down we’ll be very carefully evaluating this on Monday and coming out with some more plans around getting some of those people in.’
Joshi urged community members to continue to do their part to help get through the next months.
‘Vaccination in and of itself will not do it for quite awhile,’ he said. ‘It’s still quite a while away before our community will be adequately immunized and by the time all of this is said and done purely from a vaccination standpoint, it’s at least a couple of months away.
‘So please take care of yourself… We’re beginning to get some traction and if people continue to do their part we will hopefully get through this.’