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The most frequently asked questions about Pa.’s frustrating vaccine rollout

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By Ese Olumhense of Spotlight PA

Pennsylvania is in the midst of a frustrating vaccine rollout, and that might put it lightly. This has primarily been driven by a short supply of the vaccine overall. Making matters worse, however, has been the state’s patchwork system for finding and getting shots, which has been a major source of public complaint. Hanging over all of this is the continued news about emerging coronavirus variants, shifting mask recommendations, and what it all means for living our lives.

On Thursday, Spotlight PA held a live reader Q&A event with health experts and advocates from across the state to address some of the most pressing questions. We’ve collected a few of the most frequently asked questions, and helpful information, below.

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How can people get a vaccine appointment?

Many people have expressed frustration over the process of finding and booking a vaccine appointment. In Pennsylvania, you can find vaccine providers by checking Spotlight PA’s provider map, or, if you hate the map, we’ve created a county-by-county text listing instead. Using this information, you can contact providers directly about appointment and vaccine availability.

The state does not have a centralized vaccine sign-up system, like some other states. (More on that here.)

Contacting a provider through the map or listings doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to successfully book an appointment: Limited supply has been a significant challenge for all states in the U.S., which are allocated doses from the federal government based on population. And with the first phase of vaccine eligibility, 1A, now expanded to adults 65 and older and those 16-64 with select health conditions, there is way more demand for the shot than availability.

“That’s where we really started seeing the struggle to get folks signed up and to access the vaccine,” said Eric Kiehl, director of Policy & Partnership at Pennsylvania Association of Community Health Centers, during a live Spotlight PA reader Q&A held Thursday on the vaccine and coronavirus variants.

While the state is starting to see an increase in incoming doses, Kiehl said, it “still is going to take a long time to get to start vaccinating folks to meet that 3.5 million number in that 1A area.”

What about those who are elderly, or who do not have access to the internet? Is the state doing anything to help this population find and make vaccine appointments?

In a Thursday news conference, Gov. Tom Wolf and Department of Aging Secretary Robert Torres announced that local agencies for the aging in the state are working closely with health systems to help seniors find appointments.

“Pennsylvania’s older adults have faced many challenges throughout this pandemic, and we recognize the current frustration and anxiety older adults are experiencing as they await an open appointment for vaccine or attempt to locate one,” Torres said.

Area agencies on aging — there are 52 of them, and you can find the closest one to you here — can help seniors schedule appointments through local hospital health systems, officials said. Butler County’s agency on aging, Torres said, has helped over 1,200 adults get appointments and arranges transportation when needed.

“One of the reasons this works is that the agency is informed by the health system on how much vaccine is allocated for older adults on a weekly basis and are updated on a daily basis if appointments open up that they can take advantage of,” Torres said.

What efforts are being made so that people who do not speak English will have access to the vaccine?

Despite the fact that an estimated 11% of the state — roughly 1.4 million Pennsylvanians — are not English speakers, most vaccine information on the Department of Health site is also only available in English.

The Department of Health acknowledges that it has not done targeted outreach to these communities on the vaccine, but a spokesperson said it is working to roll out multilingual materials for vaccine seekers. In the absence of that, community groups that serve those who don’t speak English in the state said they have been fielding vaccine-related questions as much as possible, but that misinformation and lack of trust in officials are key issues.

Experts at Spotlight PA’s reader Q&A acknowledged these challenges and encouraged those who are hesitant about the vaccine to reach out to trusted sources for information.

“I think that all of us are responsible consumers in one way or another, whether we’re buying a new iPhone at Best Buy or whether we’re buying a television,” said George Fernandez, founder and chief executive of Latino Connection, a communications firm that works with organizations that serve Spanish-speaking communities in Pennsylvania. “We ask questions and I think it’s extremely imperative that we ask questions of those that we trust the most.

“Based upon the way that you feel after you have those discussions with those sources that you trust the most, you make that decision on your own,” Fernandez added.

What is a variant? What do we know about the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines’ effectiveness with the variant strains that now exist?

“Viruses are very sloppy when they make new copies of themselves,” said Dr. Frederic Bushman, a professor of microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

As they replicate, mistakes are common, and some of those mistakes change the genetic material of the virus, Bushman said. And with millions of people infected around the world, and millions of viral particles inside each person, “there’s really a lot of virus out there, total,” Bushman said.

“With all this change, if there arises a new variant that’s more infectible, it can readily expand in the population and displace the other strains that are there,” he said. “That’s what people are concerned about, that there are new variants arising that are better able to replicate inside people.”

This is true of the variant that emerged in the U.K. (which has been spreading here in Pennsylvania), officially known as B.1.1.7. But there are others, including the South African variant, or B.1.351.

“Are you more harmed by infection with these new variants? So far there’s not strong evidence — maybe a little bit of suggestion — but they seem to be maybe about the same,” Bushman said.

Clinical trials have yet to show whether the existing vaccines can curb the spread of all COVID-19 variants, STAT, a health and science publication, reported last week.

A local variant has been found in a vaccinated person, too, Bushman said, “which looks like maybe it did evolve to elude the vaccine at least a little.”

It’s important to also note that variants are not new phenomena. “We’re used to the idea that viruses change regularly,” Bushman said. “With influenza, we have to get a new flu shot every year and that’s because flu has changed.”

Dan Nott / For Spotlight PA

Can you still be a carrier and expose someone else to the SARS-CoV-2 virus even after being vaccinated?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still urging those who have been vaccinated (partially or fully) to continue wearing masks and social distancing.

“Not enough information is currently available to say if or when CDC will stop recommending that people wear masks and avoid close contact with others to help prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19,” the agency says on its website.

“Experts need to understand more about the protection that COVID-19 vaccines provide in real-world conditions before making that decision. Other factors, including how many people get vaccinated and how the virus is spreading in communities, will also affect this decision. We also don’t yet know whether getting a COVID-19 vaccine will prevent you from spreading the virus that causes COVID-19 to other people, even if you don’t get sick yourself.”

When will the next phase of vaccination in Pa. start? And who is eligible?

Department of Health officials have said in recent news conferences that they are not sure when Phase 1B will start. Right now, the phase includes those in other group living settings and front-line workers, including first responders, grocery workers, education workers, and those in transit, manufacturing, food and agriculture, and more.

Members of those groups who do have high-risk conditions — like cancer, diabetes, or heart conditions — are eligible to be vaccinated now in Phase 1A.

The full list of conditions, and more information on the state’s phased approach, are available here on the Department of Health website.

Why is Pennsylvania performing so poorly?

Virtually every state is struggling with the same problems as Pennsylvania. Even in Alaska — the best-performing state, according to an analysis from the New York Times — just 16% of the population has received at least one shot. (Pennsylvania has administered first doses to 9.5% of its population, tying with Ohio, Texas, South Carolina, and Indiana, as of Friday morning.)

The main challenge: Supply — from allocation to when doses arrive — is not something determined by the states, but by the federal government, which can also change its guidance around who should be eligible at any point.

In a Thursday afternoon news conference, Wolf acknowledged that Pennsylvania could be doing a better job with its vaccine distribution process.

“We’re all constrained by the lack of supply,” Wolf said. “Even if we were doing a perfect job — which we are not — we still don’t have enough vaccines.”

Pennsylvania is also unique in the high number of older adults living here, Wolf said, and the number of people eligible for the first vaccination phase is higher than the populations of some states, he adds.

“We still need to make better progress,” Wolf said. “We need to do better to make sure that we get this rollout of vaccines as efficiently, fairly, and effectively as we possibly can.”

What’s the state’s plan for mass vaccine clinics?

The state government has not yet held mass vaccine clinics, but officials are working on this, the governor said Thursday.

“The mass vaccination sites are part of any plan,” Wolf said. “The initial step was to work with the federal program and get these out to long-term care facilities, nursing homes, front-line health-care workers and move through that over 4 million people, plus those who are 65 and older as quickly as possible.”

“Tomorrow we are having a bipartisan legislative vaccine task force that will be meeting on a regular basis to try and figure out how we can do a better job,” the governor added. Officials and lawmakers will be working with consultants and some in the private sector on the effort.

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