HARRISBURG -- All adults will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines by April 19 and front-line workers -- including police and firefighters, grocery workers and those in food production -- became immediately eligible for the vaccines, under an updated distribution plan announced Wednesday by Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam.
“Pennsylvania’s vaccine providers have dramatically stepped up the pace of vaccinations to an average of 83,000 per day, moving the Keystone State higher and higher in the rankings with other states,” Beam said. “As we complete Phase 1A vaccinations, it’s time to open eligibility to more Pennsylvanians so providers can continue to fill appointments and efficiently, effectively and equitably vaccinate more people every day,” she said.
Beam didn’t explicitly explain why the state isn’t just opening eligibility to all adults immediately as other stats, including Ohio and West Virginia have already done, and New York plans to do on Monday.
Beam said that eligibility is now open to police, firefighters, grocery store workers, and workers in food production and those who work on farms.
Those groups include people “who cannot work remotely” and don’t have the opportunity to practice social distancing, Beam said.
Asked to clarify why Pennsylvania hasn’t immediately moved to open vaccine eligibility to all adults like the other states, Maggi Barton, a Department of Health spokeswoman, pointed to Beam’s comment about the special circumstances facing front-line workers.
“These are people who work hard every day and don’t have the option of teleworking from the safety of their living room,” Barton said. “That is why Governor Wolf and the Legislative Vaccine Task Force have developed a special initiative to vaccinate these workers,” she said.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Monday that everyone over the age of 30 was immediately eligible for the COVID vaccine in that state. New York plans to open eligibility to all adults next week. Ohio opened eligibility to all adults on Monday, one of six states to make the vaccine available to all adults on that day -- along with Kansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas. Delaware is opening eligibility to all adults on April 6, Gov. John Carney announced Tuesday.
West Virginia opened vaccine eligibility to all adults on March 22.
Maryland and New Jersey are using phased expansion of vaccine eligibility, similar to the one being rolled out in Pennsylvania.
The move to expand eligibility comes as the state is also planning to ease restrictions beginning Sunday on occupancy at restaurants and venues for large gatherings. Restaurants that self-certify that they are following health guidelines are now limited to 50% occupancy, but beginning Sunday those restaurants can serve up to 75% their normal occupancy limit.
But while the state’s restrictions for restaurants loosen on Sunday, the state’s vaccine plan doesn’t call for restaurant workers to become eligible for vaccine until a week later, as part of the Phase 1C group.
Beam acknowledged that under the state’s plan, workers in food production -- those in factories and on farms -- will become eligible before workers in restaurants serving food to the public.
She said the state’s plan to relax restrictions is intended to be an “incremental relaxation” of the restrictions that keeps in place safety measures.
“We are incrementally increasing the occupancy in these facilities. We are not at all just flinging the doors wide open. So there are still protections around how we’re going to conduct ourselves in these facilities,” she said. “You still have masking. You still have social-distancing.”
Until Wednesday, only those over 65, health care workers, those with certain medical conditions and educators were eligible.
Monday, the state will further expand eligibility to include: people living in congregate settings like treatment facilities and jails; clergy, factory workers, postal carriers, and mass transit workers. A week later, on April 12, the state will expand eligibility to more workers in essential services -- such as transportation and logistics, construction, banking, energy services, government and court employees, and those in legal services. A week after that all eligible adults will be eligible for the vaccine.
There have already been 5.1 million doses of the COVID vaccines administered in Pennsylvania, and 31% of the adult population has received at least one shot of the COVID vaccines, according to the Department of Health.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle cheered the news.
“The light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter and brighter every day,” state Rep. Tim O’Neal, R-Washington County, a member of a bipartisan vaccine legislative task force created by Gov. Tom Wolf.
State Sen. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia, another member of the vaccine legislative task force, said that the move to accelerate the state’s plan for opening eligibility was driven by the “aggressive timetable” set by President Joe Biden who said earlier this week that he wants 90% of adults to be eligible for the vaccine by April 19.
Haywood said that based on projections of increased vaccine shipments from the federal government, state officials believe there will be enough supply to open eligibility to more people and provide the doses to meet the increased demand.
“April and May will be nothing like February and March,” Haywood said, because there will be enough vaccine available to cope with the public demand for it.