HARRISBURG — A move by the Biden Administration to begin shipping COVID-19 vaccine to pharmacies should free up more doses for other sites, Department of Health Senior Advisor Lindsey Mauldin said Wednesday.

Starting next week, 1 million doses will be distributed to pharmacies across the country, the White House announced Tuesday.

Mauldin said that about 36% of the state’s Moderna vaccine allocation has been going to the pharmacies. Those doses will now be available to go to other vaccine providers, she said. This week, that was 34,000 doses, according to data provided by the Department of Health.

"That 36% is not yet free to be reallocated. Since we do not yet know how many doses the feds will send to these pharmacies we are not going to immediately cut off their supply. Once we have more information on the federal plans, then we can consider reallocating those doses toward other efforts to vaccinate more people quickly," said Barry Ciccocioppo, a Department of Health spokesman.

This comes as the state’s vaccine distribution effort has come under increasing levels of criticism.

"Vaccine rollout has been abysmal,” said House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County. “Many Pennsylvanians are frustrated” because they can’t get appointments to get vaccinated.

Much of the criticism of the state’s vaccine distribution effort has centered on federal data showing that Pennsylvania has administered only about half of the 2.1 million doses provided by the federal government.

Republicans pointed to the vaccine rollout in criticizing Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget, saying that getting more people vaccinated will be instrumental in determining how quickly the state’s economy rebounds.

“Rather than increasing the tax burden on employers and workers, we need the governor and his administration to more effectively get the COVID-19 vaccine out to Pennsylvanians,” said state Rep. Kurt Masser, R-Northumberland County.

“We need the governor to focus on getting the vaccine off the storage shelves and into the arms of frontline workers, senior citizens and other Pennsylvanians. The best way to increase state revenue is through economic growth, and that’s highly dependent right now on the vaccine,” he said.

The department of Health on Wednesday reported that 850,819 of the 1,096,525 doses the state has allocated as first doses have been administered. But the state has received 1 million doses designated as planned second doses, and, of those, only 216,361 have been administered.

Benninghoff said the state should be administering as many doses as first doses as possible and rely on the federal government to deliver more to serve as second shots when they are needed.

“We need shots in arms,” he said.

Mauldin said state officials are allocating doses for second shots because they want to be sure they are available.

Earlier Wednesday, the House Health Committee heard testimony about the vaccine rollout.

Richard L. Allen, chief executive officer of Warren General Hospital, recounted the challenge hospitals have had in trying to meet the overwhelming demand for vaccinations, especially since the state opened the door for immunizations for all senior citizens.

“There was an immediate rush to the phones,” he said. “Everyone over the age of 65 in Warren County wanted the vaccine and they wanted it immediately,” he said.

Allen said hospitals are not going to be capable of dealing with the increased demand once the state starts allowing even more people to be eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations.

Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said that the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency is preparing plans for mass vaccination clinics. However, those clinics won’t be deployed until the state starts getting enough vaccine doses to make them worthwhile, she said.

By the numbers

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported increased fatalities nationwide, COVID-19 case counts and deaths in Pennsylvania and Mercer County continued to decline.

After two days with fewer than 2,000 deaths, the fatality count rose Wednesday to 3,433. However, the number of new cases stayed relatively low, at 116,915, one of the smallest increases of the current wave.

Pennsylvania logged 2,994 new cases, according to Wednesday's state Department of Health report. That is the lowest single-day count since Nov. 4.

The Department of Health reported 18 new cases Wednesday in Mercer County. In the last seven days, from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2, the county has had 204 new cases, a 23% decrease from the seven-day span from Jan. 20-26, when the state reported 265 new cases in Mercer County.

Hospital readiness

COVID-19 patient demand on hospitals continued to decline Wednesday, according to the Department of Health report. 

The state has admitted 3,224 patients to hospitals, with 657 in intensive care and 378 on ventilators. All three figures reflect small decreases from the previous day. 

Hospitalizations and intensive care occupancy both decreased 1.7% since Tuesday. Ventilator use declined 0.5%

The two-week rolling daily average for ICU bed availability increased again, to 699. The daily average for COVID-19 hospital admissions decreased to 3,733, and ventilator use fell to 447.8 per day.

THE HERALD staff contributed to this article.

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