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Pa.'s rocky vaccine rollout, and who it's hurting

The Investigator

February 11, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Vaccine rollout, no details, struggle explained, civil rights protections (or not), bad tech, child abuse, jail oversight, endorsements, and making it official.

More than a month into the state's vaccine rollout, the Department of Health is struggling to reach some of the most vulnerable people in Pennsylvania. 

Spotlight PA's Jamie Martines found that seniors in rural Pennsylvania face a number of obstacles, from a lack of pharmacies and medical providers to a lack of internet access. She also traveled to a community clinic in rural Sullivan County, which has no hospital. Officials there said it took at least 54 people to make the three-day clinic possible.

But it's not just seniors who are being left behind. As health reporter Ese Olumhense reported this week, the state hasn’t done any targeted outreach on the vaccine to communities that don’t speak English, many of whom have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Want to learn more? Join us at 5 p.m. today as Olumhense talks about the rollout, as well as emerging variants, with Dr. Frederic Bushman of UPenn Perelman School of Medicine, Eric Kiehl of the Pennsylvania Association of Community Health Centers, and George Fernandez, CEO of Latino Connection.

» More than ever, we need independent journalists holding our state government and elected officials to account. Become a member of Spotlight PA today and support essential journalism.

Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA


"This is the legislature cutting off its nose to spite its face because of the person who currently occupies the governor’s mansion."

—House Whip Jordan Harris (D., Philadelphia) on a proposed constitutional amendment that would weaken a governor's executive powers

» 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

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» Voters will get the last word in struggle between Wolf and lawmakers

» House moves to get legal relief for clergy abuse victims back on ballot

» RSVP FOR FREE: Join us tonight at 5 as our expert health panel answers your questions about the vaccine rollout and the latest variants.
The civil rights protections that will (and won’t) be on your ballot this spring

Last week, state lawmakers agreed to send a package of constitutional amendments to Pennsylvanians this spring, including one to limit Gov. Tom Wolf’s executive powers

Voters will also be asked to consider an amendment that would enshrine protections for people based on their race and ethnicity in the state constitution.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia) successfully tacked the proposal onto the main Senate measure last year, amid protests against the police killing of George Floyd. 

“Discrimination based on race is cooked into the DNA of this nation and we must take action to explicitly prohibit racial and ethnic discrimination in Pennsylvania’s Constitution,” Hughes said at the time.

Pennsylvania state law already provides protections against housing, education, and public accommodation discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity, as well as religious creed, ancestry, age, sex, or national origin. 

Left out is the state’s LGBTQ community. 

Democrats in the state House this year took a page from Hughes’ playbook and attempted to add sexual orientation and gender identity or expression to the House version of the package. The proposal failed, with all Republicans voting against it.  

Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), the main resolution’s sponsor, opposed the change because it would “restart the clock” on the constitutional amendment. In order to send such a proposal to the voters, the General Assembly must pass the exact same language in two consecutive sessions. 

Still, it’s been notoriously difficult to advance protections for the LGBTQ community in Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature. 

Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny), who co-chairs the LGBTQ Equality Caucus, has tried for more than 20 years to get GOP leadership to consider legislation to amend the Human Relations Act to explicitly protect people based on gender expression and sexual identity. 

There’s been some progress without them. The commission that enforces the state’s anti-discrimination laws in 2018 adopted an expanded definition of “sex” to include gender identity or sexual orientation. And in July 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted a similarly broad definition of sex as it applies to workplace discrimination.

Lawmakers at that time urged the House State Government Committee to bring Frankel’s bill up for a vote and extend these protections. But the panel’s former chair, Rep. Garth Everett (R., Lycoming), refused to consider the legislation last session. He has since retired, and the committee is now chaired by Grove. 

Frankel, for his part, does not think this year will bring change.

“There are supporters, both in the House and the Senate, Republican supporters of equal rights,” he said. “But there are very, very substantial constituencies in both chambers that are extremely socially conservative on many issues and this is kind of a third rail for them.”

Cynthia Fernandez, Spotlight PA

BAD TECH: A software system, which cost the state Department of Health $852,000, overbooks clinics, sends patients incorrect or conflicting scheduling reminders, and has other serious flaws, The Inquirer reports. The state is weighing whether it should use the tech for its own mass vaccination clinics.

NEW TOOL: The state health department rolled out an online tool that tells Pennsylvanians when they are eligible for a vaccine, TribLIVE reports, though it does nothing to help them find and schedule an appointment. Gov. Tom Wolf, meanwhile, announced the creation of a vaccine task force with members of the General Assembly.

UNDER PRESSURE: A magisterial district judge in Harrisburg was suspended after she allegedly attempted to interfere with the February 2020 arrest of her son. District Judge Sonya McKnight also faces criminal charges of evidence tampering, obstruction, and official oppression, the Associated Press reports.

UNHEARD? At least three people warned Lebanon County authorities that Stephanie and Robert Duncan were potentially mistreating their children but believe they were ignored, the tipsters told PennLive. County officials said they are investigating these claims but have found no evidence of ignored calls.

LITTLE OVERSIGHT: In 2019, the Allegheny County Jail tied inmates to a restraint chair more than any other county jail in the state, PublicSource reports. According to former medical employees, the staff used the chair to punish people, with little mental health oversight, instead of helping them through trauma.

» AP: Statewide judges get party endorsement to run for high court

» LNP: Mother of Lancaster man killed by police files wrongful death suit

» MORNING CALL: Feds say Pa. lawyer planned to kill U.S. senators

» POST-GAZETTE: Merged state-owned universities would keep names

» WHYY: Fetterman is officially running for U.S. Senate

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