HARRISBURG --- A move to allow more senior citizens to get COVID-19 vaccines could impact how quickly teachers, prison workers and other essential workers can get immunized, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said Wednesday.

The Trump Administration on Tuesday announced that it wants states to give higher priority to adults over the age of 65. The state has been giving top priority to healthcare workers and nursing home residents and staff.

Immunizing seniors will mean it will take longer for those in other groups whose jobs require that they interact with others, to get access to vaccines, Levine said. Until Tuesday, the state had been told that seniors over the age of 75 would qualify for vaccines at the same time as essential workers. Under the revised guidance, everyone over 65 will be eligible for vaccines as soon as the state unveils its strategy for meeting the new guidance.

Levine said that state officials were working on updating the plan.

“They jumbled the categories,” Levine told members of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania in a Wednesday morning hearing. “OK, we’ll work with the new categories but at the moment, we’re not getting more vaccine, so it will lead to a delay in other people getting vaccinated” unless the federal government provides more doses, she said. 

“They’ve talked about providing more vaccine,” Levine said.”If we see it, we’ll put it out,” she said.

As part of the shift in guidance this week, the Trump Administration also indicated that it will no longer hold back vaccine to provide second-dose shots in order to get as much vaccine available as quickly as possible.

The state has estimated that there are more than 1 million people in what’s been designated Phase 1A of the vaccine distribution plan -- healthcare workers and those in nursing homes.

The state has been provided close to 1 million doses of vaccine but has only administered 342,000 of them.  There are more than 2.3 million Pennsylvanians over the age of 65, according to the U.S. Census.

Levine said that as the state moves to make vaccines available to senior citizens, there will be an online registration form that people will be asked to complete. That form will help state officials identify how much demand there is for vaccine and where it is. 

However, once vaccine doses are allocated, people will have to make appointments with whatever provider, such as the local hospital or clinic, to get their immunizations.

State officials will be looking to require that COVID vaccines only be provided to people by appointment so that there aren’t lines of senior citizens standing outside waiting to get immunized, Levine said.

The move to make vaccines more widely available will need to overcome some resistance from members of the public. That the resistance appears stronger in rural Pennsylvania than other parts of the state, said Steven Johnson, president of UPMC Susquehanna.

He pointed to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation that shows that rural residents tend to be older, tend to less healthy, less-inclined to take preventative measures to mitigate their exposure to COVID-19 and less inclined to be willing to get vaccinated.

There is evidence that many rural residents refuse to believe that the pandemic is a serious threat until they have some first-hand experience in seeing COVID-19 seriously sicken or kill someone, he said.

The rollout of the COVID vaccine in the UPMC system has mirrored those trends.

In Pittsburgh, 80% of UPMC workers offered the vaccine got it, he said. In Williamsport, 75% of workers offered the vaccine got immunized. But at smaller hospitals, including those in Muncy, Wellsboro and Coudersport, only 60% of workers offered the vaccine have gotten it, he said. And at the nursing homes operated by UPMC in north-central Pennsylvania, only 50% of staff have gotten COVID vaccines, he said.

Levine said that based on the number of healthcare workers and nursing home workers who’ve been offered vaccine doses but declined to get immunized, the state may be about half-way through Phase 1A.

One of the key points in the new federal guidance was that states have now been told that they shouldn’t feel obligated to fully immunize individuals in the Phase 1A part of the plan before moving on to immunize others, she said.

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