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Why doesn't Pa. have a vaccine appointment website?

The Investigator

January 28, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Recovery homes, judicial districts, vaccines for seniors, victim advocate resigns, a centralized site, civil suits, start-up stopped, and excessive force.

Pennsylvania's drug and alcohol recovery homes — believed to number in the thousands — continue to operate without state oversight, despite a 2017 law requiring it, Spotlight PA's Ed Mahon has found.

The state’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs missed a June 2020 deadline to create the certification process and this month couldn’t commit to a timeline for when oversight will begin. That's worrisome to some who pushed for the law, Mahon reported, as bad operators have in the past packed people into homes, provided few rules and little support, and put residents at greater risk of relapsing.

Reporter Marie Albiges, who is focused on redistricting and gerrymandering this year, turned her attention to a proposal to create partisan districts for the state's appellate judges. What she found: Only two other states — Illinois and Louisiana — employ such a system, which has increased partisan campaign fights and given special interests and dark money groups more of a foothold to affect the outcome of races.

SUPPORT OUR REDISTRICTING COVERAGE: The only reason Spotlight PA can do this reporting is because so many of you stepped up and donated to make Albiges' position possible. But we still have a little ways to go. If you care about reporting on redistricting in Pennsylvania, become a member now.

Also this week, health reporter Ese Olumhense found that hundreds of long-term care facilities have yet to receive a single vaccine dose. We're still looking for tips from pharmacists and health-care workers, as well as residents, about the vaccine rollout. Talk to us here.

Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA


"It’s been very hard to tie them down to a particular issue, but it’s a tragic situation."

—Adam Marles, president and CEO of LeadingAge PA, on delays getting people inside personal care homes and assisted living facilities vaccinated

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, find where to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and sign up for alerts for your county. We're currently working on more resources to help you track vaccine distribution.

» Acting Pa. victim advocate resigns after rejection by GOP-led Senate

» Election official calls for end to ‘lies’ as GOP launches 2020 hearings

Could a centralized vaccine signup website registration site ease Pa.’s rollout pains? 

Pennsylvania’s recent expansion of who is eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine was coupled with frustration and confusion as people clamored to sign up for appointments, only to be disappointed by a cumbersome, fragmented system.

The chaos is fueled by a lack of supply: Like other states, Pennsylvania is only receiving a fraction of the doses it needs from the federal government to meet demand. Without more vaccines, could a centralized system for scheduling at least make the process a little easier on the public? 

New York manages a state-run sign-up portal that allows residents to receive vaccines at state vaccination sites, but also gives them the option to contact their pharmacy or health-care provider directly for a vaccine. New Jersey has a state-run portal that allows residents to pre-register to receive an alert when it’s time to make an appointment. 

But even those states are struggling with supply, and have had to shut down vaccination sites or suspend appointments until more vaccines are available. 

Pennsylvania does not have a centralized scheduling system, and is not operating any state-run mass vaccination sites at this time. Instead, the state is relying on individual health-care providers like hospitals, community health centers, and private practices, along with pharmacies, to create and manage their own scheduling process.

The extent to which the Pennsylvania Health Department is involved in the scheduling process is minimal: It has a map posted to its website with clickable pins showing where vaccines might be available. 

Scheduling an appointment for a vaccine involves calling or emailing a facility directly, or signing up through that provider’s website. Often, the effort results in a long hold, an overflowing voice mailbox, or a disheartening automated message stating that there are no appointments available.

Building a centralized system might be beneficial for residents, but it wouldn’t be simple to pull off. Health-care systems generally don’t have IT systems that communicate well with each other, and that makes scheduling or sharing records difficult, said Sezgin Ayabakan, a professor at Temple University specializing in health information technology.

And while New York’s centralized site works because its mass vaccination clinics are all operated by the state, individual providers administering vaccines in Pennsylvania — like pharmacies, hospitals, or private practices — all work differently, with varying staff or operating hours. 

Given that the number of vaccines a site receives week-to-week varies — and as a result, the number of appointments a site can schedule — it’s better to let individual providers handle the scheduling, said Kristie Bennardi, CEO of the Keystone Rural Health Consortia.

The consortia is operating two vaccine clinics three days a week, and is working through a waiting list of 1,426 people and counting.

A centralized system could help facilities cut down on the administrative work it takes to get someone scheduled, like weeding out people who sign up multiple times at different locations, but Keystone has been able to manage it by hiring a part-time staff member, Bennardi said. 

Jamie Martines, Spotlight PA

CIVIL SUITS: The Pennsylvania House overwhelmingly passed a measure that would create a temporary window for adults who were sexually abused as children to file civil suits, PennLive reports. The state Senate is expected to also approve the resolution, sending it to voters by as early as this spring. The easy passage is a major departure from the heated debate that occurred in 2018.

LITTLE OVERSIGHT, MUCH BIAS: A Bucks County judge is accused of humiliating a single mother in a child custody case, the Courier Times reports. Judge Alan Rubenstein has had a sometimes controversial legal career, having been rebuked by the Superior Court last year for calling a woman seeking a protection from abuse order a "little blond honey" who was "too dumb to leave." There is very little oversight of Pennsylvania judges, and complaints rarely lead to charges. 

START-UP STOPPED: Philadelphia has ended a relationship with the group behind the city's largest vaccination site after officials learned it had gone from nonprofit to for-profit, Billy Penn and WHYY News report. One former volunteer told the news outlets executives at Philly Fighting COVID "were bragging about how rich they were going to get.” It was later revealed the group's founder personally took home doses.

EXCESSIVE FORCE: A Lancaster city couple is suing a pair of officers, alleging excessive force and bogus drug charges, LancasterOnline reports. One of the officers named in the suit was previously sued by a Virginia man who was jailed for 10 months over charges the DA later said shouldn't have been brought. The other officer was also named in a previous excessive force suit.

CHILD ABUSE: Prosecutors have charged 20 staffers in connection with alleged physical abuse of 18 children at Devereux’s three residential campuses in Chester County, according to an Inquirer review of court records. Leaders at the health organization would not answer specific questions, but said in a statement the incidents were "heartbreaking and unacceptable."

» AP: Pennsylvania Senate OKs $912M pandemic recovery aid bill

» MORNING CALL: Allentown Diocese sells land to pay abuse victims

» PENNLIVE: Perry defends his actions in Trump election controversy

» TRIBLIVE: Support grows for hate speech bill in wake of Capitol riot

» USA TODAY: Why Toomey voted to keep Trump impeachment trial

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org. Love the riddler? Chip in and become a member of Spotlight PA so we can keep the good times rolling.

ENCODED (Case No. 77): Below is a sequence of letters. What are the next three? As a bonus, how many total letters would be in the entire sequence?
J, F, M, __, __, __
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: The person was born in 2015 BCE
Congrats to Shawn T.,  who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Nathan B., Michael H., Annette I., Roseanne D., Jon N., Joseph S., Mary S., Ira B., Brian P., Bruce B., Steve B., Hagan H., Beth T., Eileen D., Thomas D., and Ashley S. 
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