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Good luck, Ms. Beam

We don’t envy Alison Beam.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s 34-year-old deputy chief of staff on Jan. 23 assumed the role of acting secretary of the state Department of Health, taking the job previously held by Dr. Rachel L. Levine, who President Joe Biden has nominated to serve as assistant health secretary.

Beam, who holds a law degree from Drexel University and a degree in Health Policy and Administration from Penn State, steps into her new role at a pivotal moment as the commonwealth and its health department endure withering criticism for a sluggish COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

We can’t imagine a more pressure-filled position in all of Pennsylvania than Beam’s.

Wolf didn’t mince words when he said her “foremost and immediate focus will be on the strategic distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, making sure Pennsylvania receives as many doses as possible from the federal government, and that the Pennsylvania Department of Health coordinates with hospitals, health centers, county and local governments, and pharmacy partners to make this vaccine as widely available as possible to Pennsylvanians everywhere.”

Welcome to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Ms. Beam. The bathroom is down the hall on the right, the vending machines are by the elevator. And when might you have that “strong, widely available and successful” statewide vaccination strategy that Wolf mentioned?

Because the last few weeks have shown that the current strategy is none of those things.

To be clear, Pennsylvania isn’t getting nearly enough doses of the COVID-19 from the federal government.

But even though the supply has fallen well short of what’s needed, the commonwealth still boosted demand significantly on Jan. 20 by making eligible Pennsylvanians 65 and older and residents age 16 to 64 who have a host of medical conditions including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), cancer, Down syndrome, sickle cell disease and obesity. Pregnant women and smokers are also now eligible.

Before the change went into effect, about 1.1 million Pennsylvanians were cleared to receive the vaccination. But with those other groups joining health care personnel and long-term care facility residents at the front of the line, the number grew to 3.5 million overnight.

That was when already-simmering frustrations reached a boiling point for those who’ve been trying to get the shots without any luck.

Meanwhile, hope among many in the next eligibility group that their turn was coming soon began to dim. That group includes first responders, correctional officers, postal service workers, teachers, clergy and grocery store workers.

The problems in Pennsylvania, however, extends beyond the simple supply-demand equation.

Pennsylvania had received 1,564,125 doses of the vaccine as of Feb. 2, but only 737,817 doses had found their way into Pennsylvanians’ arms. Pennsylvania ranks 42nd out of 50 states in terms of the percentage of eligible people given at least one shot.

Wolf said he hates “being in the middle of any pack.” He’s being generous. Pennsylvania is close to the back of the pack given those numbers.

We believe part of the problem, which has caused much confusion among residents, has been Pennsylvania’s decentralized approach to vaccinating its eligible population.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health runs the program. It obtains the doses from the federal government and allocates them to hospitals, counties and health care providers. Those organizations then come up with their own plans to distribute them and those practices can vary from site to site.

For instance, some medical centers are booking vaccine appointments through March. Others won’t book anything more than eight days out, citing supply-related uncertainty. Some healthcare providers are attempting to create different priority groups within the so-called Phase 1A priority group. Others are not.

Pennsylvania does not regulate signing up for the vaccine, leaving residents scrambling to call local providers to determine which ones are accepting registrations. Some end up on multiple waiting lists.

It seems odd that after 10 months in which the Wolf administration has endured constant criticism for wielding too much power and meddling too much in the lives of Pennsylvanians that it would now leave counties, healthcare centers and residents to their own devices.

Beam has the unenviable task of figuring out how to do this better, amid public scrutiny and with the knowledge that doing it better will save lives.

She’ll do it while navigating the ins and outs of a new, high-profile position at its most critical moment in decades. We hope her strategy will include the best of what’s worked in other states and a commitment to transparency about its successes and failures.

— Erie Times News

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