Pa. lawmaker wants to compel Wolf administration to release details of wasted COVID-19 vaccine doses

The Department of Health denied a public records request, citing a decades-old law that it has frequently used to shield the public from scrutinizing its pandemic response.

(Fred Adams for Spotlight PA)

(Fred Adams for Spotlight PA)

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A state lawmaker wants to compel the Wolf administration to make public details on wasted COVID-19 vaccine doses, information it refused to release to Spotlight PA.

Although vaccine providers are required to report when and why a dose of vaccine is “compromised,” the Pennsylvania Department of Health last month denied a public records request from Spotlight PA seeking documentation, citing a decades-old law that it has frequently used to shield the public from scrutinizing its pandemic response. The request did not seek any patient information.

State Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill) plans to introduce the legislation this month, because “I just think people have the right to know this information.”

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“I understand it’s a small percentage of the overall number of vaccinations, but I still think that that information should be released to the public, and if the governor and his appointed officials won’t do it voluntarily I’m prepared to move legislation forward as the chairman of the State Government Committee to do just that,” Argall said in an interview with Spotlight PA.

The Health Department said just 1,589 of the more than 2.3 million doses administered as of Feb. 26 — or just .06% — were reported by providers as wasted, mostly due to vials broken in handling, syringe issues, such as bent or broken needles, or clients refusing after the vaccine dose was drawn.

Officials declined to provide further information, like which providers are reporting waste or the most common reasons for discarded doses, because of the Disease Prevention and Control Law. The 1955 act gives the state broad authority to keep information on contagious diseases confidential, like details that could potentially identify individuals.

Media lawyers, however, said the law also gives the state discretion over what records to make public in the interest of transparency. Experts told Spotlight PA that the law could also be amended to make it clear that important information in the public interest should be released.

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“The law is so old we don’t really know what was meant,” said Paula Knudsen Burke, a media lawyer who is representing PublicSource, a Pittsburgh-based newsroom, in a lawsuit related to the health department’s use of the statute. “And so we have to try and parse it out and determine: Did the legislature back in 1955 really mean that in the midst of a pandemic we couldn’t know what was happening, especially when it comes to important public policy decisions?”

“I’m hoping that some clarity comes either from the courts or the legislature — or both,” Knudsen added.

Spotlight PA has appealed the health department’s decision to the state Office of Open Records.

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