Updated 6:00 p.m.
Pennsylvania is poised to dramatically expand access to COVID-19 vaccines.
On Wednesday, officials announced that everyone in the 1B category of its vaccine distribution plan will be eligible for the shot this Monday, April 5. People in 1C will become eligible the following Monday, April 12, and access will open to adults and children ages 16 and up a week later, on Monday, April 19.
This does not affect Philadelphia, which has its own vaccine distribution plan.
A spokesman for the city’s health department said it is on track to move to its next phase, which includes essential workers with lower exposure risk, sometime in April, and then to its final open vaccination stage on May 1.
“The COVID-19 vaccine is safe, it is effective, and we want each person who can receive it to do so as soon as possible,” acting Department of Health Secretary Alison Beam said.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration had previously been reluctant to say when vaccine access would expand in the commonwealth, even as nearby states, like New Jersey and Delaware, have dramatically increased eligibility.
“We’re talking about that now, as to how we want to move beyond where we are right now and how quickly we can do it,” Wolf said Tuesday.
Pennsylvania’s 1A phase included health care workers, people living in long-term care facilities, people who are 65 and older, and people with high-risk medical conditions.
The 1B phase will add people living in congregate settings who weren’t classified as long-term care workers, grocery store workers, teachers, U.S. Postal Service and public transit workers, people who work in manufacturing, and clergy, among others.
1C will open vaccination to people who work in food service, construction workers who build housing, bank tellers, lawyers, members of the media, and people who work in public safety.
The final phase, known as Phase 2, will open the vaccine to anyone over the age of 16 who wasn’t previously covered.
“We are on a different playing field than we were previously,” Beam said, adding that the commonwealth is now getting many more doses from the federal government, and has a better sense of how many doses they can expect.
That, she said, makes it much much easier for providers to schedule appointments.
“We now are giving the provider community predictability,” Beam said.
Pennsylvania had a rocky start to its vaccine administration plan. In the early months of the rollout, it was consistently ranked toward the bottom of states for quickly giving out the shots it had received from the federal government.
The commonwealth has improved in recent weeks, however. Beam said she was proud that on Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Pennsylvania 12th in the country for administering first doses.
The expanded vaccination availability comes as Pennsylvania prepares to loosen several of its key COVID-19 restrictions.
Wolf announced the change earlier this month. Beginning on Sunday, April 4, restaurants will be allowed to resume bar service, and indoor dining capacity will be raised to 75% for restaurants that undergo the self-certification process. Indoor capacity limits will be raised to 75% for gyms, casinos, theaters, malls, and other entertainment facilities.
The governor also revised the commonwealth’s maximum occupancy limits, allowing 25% occupancy for indoor events and 50% for outdoor ones.
It is a move that has been met with some criticism, because despite increasing vaccination rates, COVID-19 cases have seen a significant uptick in recent weeks.
Over the past week, the commonwealth saw an average of 3,626 new cases each day, according to state data. That is an increase of 53% from the first week of March, when Pennsylvania had an average of 2,370 new cases each day.
But Beam defended the state’s decision to go ahead with loosened restrictions.
“We are incrementally increasing the occupancy within these facilities. We are not at all flinging the doors wide open,” she said. “There are still protections around how we’re going to conduct ourselves in these facilities … It’s not just flipping the switch entirely, it’s allowing us to lightly progress.”
Philadelphia, on the other hand, declined to follow the state’s example and relax dining restrictions In light of the case numbers.
“We are very concerned about the rising COVID rates and now the rising hospitalizations,” the city’s Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said last week. “There are more than 20 deaths occurring per week. And we believe that those changes, if we adopted them here in the city of Philadelphia, could further increase rates of cases and hospitalizations and deaths.”
University of Pennsylvania to vaccinate students, staff, faculty
The University of Pennsylvania will begin vaccinating eligible students, staff, and faculty in April, university leadership said on Wednesday.
Initially, only staff and faculty who live in Philadelphia will be eligible, though students are not required to show permanent residency to qualify, according to an email from five members of the university’s senior leadership to the school community. The university will be following the City of Philadelphia’s vaccine tiers and has been approved by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health to administer doses.
“Vaccines are not mandatory. However, when they are available, the University will facilitate access to vaccines,” wrote university leadership. They also encouraged students, staff, and faculty who can get vaccinated before Penn’s clinic is up and running to do so.
The clinic will be located at the Gimbel Gymnasium in the Pottruck Health and Fitness Center, located at 37th and Walnut streets.
Penn follows other higher education institutions in the area that are facilitating the rollout of vaccines to students and staff.
Rutgers University also received approval to open a vaccination site and is requiring all students enrolled across three campuses – Camden, New Brunswick, and Newark – to be vaccinated to attend the Fall 2021 semester in person.
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