Acknowledging the growing anxiety many seniors have had in getting COVID-19 vaccines, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration is directing more resources to help older residents make appointments and get transportation.
In a news conference last Thursday, Wolf and Pennsylvania Secretary of Aging Robert Torres said state agencies are working on solutions to help seniors get vaccinated. Seniors are most at risk for serious complications from the coronavirus.
The PA Link to Aging and Disability Resources is deploying more staff to help seniors with scheduling appointments for vaccines or finding transportation. The PA Link hotline: 1-800-753-8827.
The state’s PACE program, which helps older adults obtain inexpensive prescription drugs, is also beginning an outreach effort. PACE is designating a team of employees in its Harrisburg call center to serve as a special scheduling unit to help its 275,000 PACE/PACENET enrollees obtain vaccines. PACE/PACENET members can call this number: 800-225-7223.
Wolf also said Pennsylvania seniors can contact their county’s Area Agency on Aging to get assistance with vaccine scheduling and transportation. Some agencies in western Pennsylvania have worked particularly well with local partners to help seniors get vaccinated, Torres said. (Find contact for information for your county agency on aging here.)
As he has in recent weeks, Wolf has said the state must do more to vaccinate seniors, particularly those who lack computers or aren’t adept at using them.
“We need to do better… we’re working on that very hard,” Wolf said.
“We know folks need help getting appointments. They need help getting transportation,” Wolf said.
Lawmakers and some advocates for seniors have said the pace of the vaccine rollout is too slow. Advocates for seniors living in long-term care facilities have said they need to be given priority since those residents are among the most vulnerable.
The Pennsylvania Health Care Association, which represents long-term care facilities, urged the state to allocate a greater share of vaccines to the state’s residents in those facilities.
“Only less than 20 percent of Pennsylvania’s vaccine has been dedicated to the most vulnerable in our nursing homes and long-term care communities thus far,” Zach Shamberg, the association’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “The data is clear: long-term care has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, yet, providers, workers and residents still seem to be fighting for prioritization for a life-saving vaccine.”
Wolf has said the state needs to do better but Pennsylvania, like other states, doesn’t have the supply to meet the overwhelming demand. “The chief constraint right now is the supply,” Wolf said.
The governor also said most residents and staff at long-term care facilities have been offered the vaccine.
Earlier this week, the health department launched a new online tool, called “Your Turn,” designed to help people know when they’re eligible for COVID-19 vaccine and help them find a provider. The tool doesn’t enable people to schedule a vaccination appointment but offers help to those unsure if they’re eligible for the vaccine.
The program includes a telephone hotline to connect people who lack internet access to the information. It can be reached at 1-877-724-3258, or 1-877-PA-HEALTH.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, more than 1.1 million people have received COVID-19 vaccine doses through Wednesday. The department said more than 335,000 have received the two doses needed to be fully vaccinated.
About 4 million people are eligible for the first phase of the COVID-19 vaccine. Those eligible include health care workers, seniors 65 and over, and younger adults who have certain health conditions or high-risk factors.
The state is receiving about 150,000 vaccines each week, Wolf said.
Also last week, the Wolf administration announced it had formed a new COVID-19 vaccine task force comprised of lawmakers and state officials. Wolf said the group will hold its first meeting Friday to discuss ways to improve the vaccine rollout.
In the news conference, Wolf was again asked about creating one centralized state hotline to help people get appointments. Wolf administration officials have said a central hotline may not necessarily be a better option than directing residents to local providers such as health systems and pharmacies. But Wolf didn’t rule it out as the task force begins examining ways to get vaccines out more quickly.
“There’s nothing that’s off the table,” Wolf said.
More than 884,000 Pennsylvania residents have contracted the coronavirus and more than 22,800 deaths have been tied to COVID-19, according to the state health department. More than half of the state’s coronavirus deaths have occurred in long-term care facilities.
Most who are infected suffer relatively mild symptoms and many never get sick, but the virus poses health risks to everyone, particularly seniors and those with health complications.