Pa. acting health secretary grilled by lawmakers on inconsistent vaccine rollout

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Members of the Pennsylvania House Appropriations Committee grilled acting Health Secretary Alison Beam Thursday over the state’s fumbles with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

One of the many contentious exchanges came from Bucks County Republican state Rep. Meghan Schroeder, who asked Beam why Pennsylvania expanded eligibility on Jan. 19 to include millions more people, even though vaccine supply was — and still is — so limited.

“Thank you for highlighting the supply shortage,” Beam replied. “I feel like we’ve been saying it a lot, but this is obviously one of the main concerns right now, to have the federal government — ”

Schroeder interrupted. “But you’re the one saying we have a limited supply. But then you put a bunch of individuals into one phase where we don’t have enough to vaccinate those people, so you set this expectation that has failed the people of Pennsylvania.”

At the time, Phase 1a in Pennsylvania was initially limited to people over the age of 75, congregate care and skilled nursing home residents, and health care workers. The expansion then allowed anyone 65 and older, along with people with health issues.

Beam said the move was made to conform to federal guidelines.

Schroeder asked how many people were in the initial 1a category, and what percentage had been vaccinated at the time of the change.

“I don’t want to speak out of turn,” said Beam. “I will get back to you with exactly what we had used with an estimate of what the initial Phase 1a population was.”

Committee chair Stan Saylor, a Republican representing part of York County, told Beam he’s disappointed she wasn’t prepared with numbers.

Moving forward, Schroeder urged the state Department of Health to be more careful and not set false expectations.

Beam often pointed to a lack of supply and challenges with communication from the federal government. She said the department is working to be as fair as possible with the allocation. Republican representatives disagreed.

“Chaotic, disorganized, inefficient are very light terms to describe the Department of Health’s distribution plan,” said state Rep. Rosemary Brown.

“We had time to prepare for this,” said state Rep. Clint Owlett. “That’s why everybody’s frustrated and that’s why emotions are high. It didn’t have to be this chaotic.”

“That is double-speak like I have rarely seen before this chamber,” added state Rep. John Lawrence.

Instead of questioning the vaccine, state Rep. Natalie Mihalek pressed Beam on last year’s order that forced COVID-19 patients into nursing homes. Beam said the order followed federal guidance.

“Well, no,” replied Mihalek. “If you’re following federal guidance, then no separate order is needed.”

“Our guidance, while it may have been clearer, was not different than the federal guidance,” said Beam.

Beam repeatedly avoided Mihalek’s questions of whether that order was a mistake, prompting Saylor to add, “The fact you are avoiding the answer clearly makes it clear that it was a mistake. I don’t know why when you make mistakes you can’t agree that the mistake was made.”

Featured Image Photo Credit: The Office of Governor Tom Wolf via Flickr