Pennsylvania officials sound alarm on vaccine hesitancy

A growing number of unfilled appointments and low uptake among nursing home workers are early signs that vaccine hesitancy is becoming an issue in Pennsylvania, prompting state officials to sound the alarm Friday and urge residents to get their COVID-19 shots as quickly as possible.

After months of demand outstripping supply, vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are more readily available, and the Wolf administration said the challenge now is to assuage the concerns of people who are reluctant to get it.

Gov. Tom Wolf and state health officials on Friday toured a community vaccination clinic in Hershey that had opening. In nearby Lebanon County, a mass vaccination clinic reported hundreds of available slots, something that might have been unthinkable weeks ago when providers were swamped with requests but didn’t have enough doses to give out.

"The appointment availability does give us cause for concern because it’s indicative of hesitancy, which really is the challenge to come," said Alison Beam, the state’s acting health secretary, who joined Wolf at a news conference.

She said the fact that nearly half of Pennsylvania's nursing home workers have declined the vaccine is further evidence of "how far we have to go and how much of a challenge overcoming this vaccine hesitancy will be in the near future."

Pennsylvania's Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam. (The Office of Governor Tom Wolf)

Only 53% of staff in skilled nursing facilities have opted to get the vaccine, according to Health Department data, even though the shots have been available to them for months.

With supplies increasing, the state expanded eligibility to everyone aged 16 and older this week. To date, Pennsylvania has vaccinated more than 40% of its eligible population, not including Philadelphia, which gets its supply directly from the federal government and runs its own program.

Wolf said he plans to get his first dose on Monday in York.

"The more people who get vaccinated, the safer all of us are going to be and the sooner we can get out of this," he said. "These vaccines are the way we can fight back and actually move on to the life that we’d like it to be."

State officials said Friday they're planning a print and digital media campaign to get that message out.

The reasons why some people remain hesitant tend to be similar across demographic, geographic and political groups, said Health Department spokesperson Maggi Barton, and include "safety, efficacy and benefits for a post-vaccine world."

While the decision to get vaccinate or not remains a personal one, she said, the state is "arming our communities with vaccine facts because good information leads to good decisions."

Following guidance from the federal government, Pennsylvania this week paused use of Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine while health experts investigate a handful of rare blood clots that have been reported.

The J&J vaccine has played a small role in the state's overall vaccine rollout to date, though the pause forced the cancellation of some vaccine clinics and affected programs targeting prison inmates and corrections officers as well as food and agricultural workers and other groups.

In Philadelphia, where vaccine distribution is being handled independently from the rest of Pennsylvania, officials moved up the expansion of vaccine eligibility to all adults 16 and up. The city's health commissioner says the expansion was moved up to Friday after their vaccination partners reported 'difficulty filling appointments.'



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