Val Arkoosh

Montgomery County Board of Commissioners' Chairwoman Dr. Valerie Arkoosh participates in a meeting.

NORRISTOWN — As Montgomery County officials express concerns about a limited supply of COVID-19 vaccines and potential inequities created by the state’s revised vaccine allotment plan, they reported 16 new deaths from the virus over the latest two-day period ending Friday.

One death was reported on Friday and 15 deaths were reported on Thursday, bringing the county’s death toll from the coronavirus to 1,115 since the pandemic began last March.

Officials also reported 600 additional county residents tested positive for the virus over the two-day period, which brought the county’s total number of positive cases to 40,661 since March 7, when the first two cases of the virus were identified in the county. Nineteen of the new positive individuals are residents of long-term care facilities.

The county has been averaging about 303 positive cases of the virus per day.

“This is still a substantial number of cases and is associated with a substantial number of hospitalizations. We do continue to remain in a serious and continually evolving situation,” county Commissioners’ Chairwoman Dr. Valerie Arkoosh said during a news briefing earlier this week. “While we await the arrival of enough vaccine in our community to be able to vaccinate everyone who would like to be vaccinated, we must continue to wear our masks, wash our hands and watch our distance from people that are not our household members.”

Earlier this week, state health officials expanded COVID-19 vaccination protocols, opening the door for everyone 65 years and older, and those 16 to 64 with specific underlying medical conditions, to receive the vaccine.

According to the county’s website, those underlying medical conditions for individuals 16 to 64 include: cancer; chronic kidney disease; COPD; heart conditions such as heart failure, coronary artery disease or cardiomyopathies; weakened immune system from solid organ transplant or blood or bone marrow transplant or HIV; obesity; Down Syndrome; pregnancy; sickle cell disease; smoking; or Type 2 diabetes mellitus.

Those categories were added to Phase 1A of the state's phased vaccination program. Phase 1A previously included only healthcare workers and those residing in long-term care facilities, a process that continues. The vaccination at long-term care facilities is being completed through a federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens pharmacies.

County officials said the expanded definitions for the 1A group added approximately 250,000 county residents who now qualify for vaccination as part of Phase 1A. However, the supply of vaccine is still limited.

“We have a really long way to go here and we all have to hope that the supply of vaccine increases. At our current rate of receiving 5,000 doses a week it will be an awfully long time just to get through the 1A group,” Arkoosh said. “I do, though, want to encourage people to pre-register now if you haven’t already registered on our site. That will be the quickest way to be notified if the county has vaccine available for you.”

Three weeks ago, the Montgomery County Office of Public Health began vaccinating, at a public vaccination clinic hosted by the Montgomery County Community College campus in Whitpain, those eligible in Phase 1A of the state’s vaccination plan. At the clinic, which is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., officials are administering about 1,000 doses each day.

“Appointments are required to receive the vaccine. We do not take any walk-up registrations,” explained Arkoosh, who as a physician has been at the forefront of the county’s efforts to combat COVID-19 and provide citizens with the latest information regarding the outbreak.

All those now eligible for the vaccine in Phase 1A can pre-register to receive the vaccine through the county health department. The pre-registration link can be found at www.montcopa.org/COVID-19 under the green vaccination information button.

Due to the limited supply of vaccine available at this time, only eligible people will be scheduled for appointments during the next several weeks.

“We will be requiring proof of age. If you are under age 65 you will be asked to sign an attestation form. We won’t ask you to share with us which underlying condition you have of the specific conditions that are included in this, but we will ask you to sign a from attesting to the fact that you do have one of those underlying conditions,” Arkoosh explained.

As of Wednesday, about 80,000 people had pre-registered for a vaccine appointment at the county site.

“For those of you who have registered on our site and haven’t heard anything from us please be patient. It’s going very slowly because we have so little vaccine to give,” Arkoosh said.

Any questions or concerns regarding vaccine registration must be directed to the county Office of Public Health at publichealth@montcopa.org

The Pennsylvania Department of Health reported on Friday that 5,710 county residents had received the full two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines through Jan. 21, during the ongoing Phase 1A of the vaccine distribution program. Another 29,601 residents had received the first dose of the vaccine, according to state data.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses to achieve optimum protection.

Expanding the number of those eligible for vaccine in the Phase 1A category, will potentially, mean those other essential workers in the 1B or 1C categories won’t get vaccinated for many more months, without a corresponding increase in vaccine supply. That includes teachers, grocery store clerks and public transit workers.

“All of those folks were in the queue in the relatively near future to be vaccinated because of their job status and the fact their jobs exposed them in a very public way to risk of getting COVID-19 and that their jobs are also critical to the full functioning of our community. Those individuals are now potentially, depending upon the availability of vaccine, literally months from being vaccinated at this point,” said Arkoosh, adding she hopes the new administration under President Joe Biden can increase the vaccine supply.

“Unless something dramatic happens with the supply of vaccine, and I very much hope under this new administration that it does, but I have no certainty about that as of yet, but unless that supply increases, many of the economic challenges that we were also facing will continue because a lot of these essential workers will not be able to get vaccine,” Arkoosh added. “We need more vaccine.”

Finally, Arkoosh said, “there is an issue of equity here.”

“Many of our frontline, most essential workers are from communities of color and it was a top priority for me to be able to make sure that we made vaccine available to those individuals if they wanted to be vaccinated. Now, that is put off for some as yet unknown period of time, but it will be a considerable amount of time, at our current rate of receiving vaccine,” Arkoosh said. “I’m not happy about this situation.”

Arkoosh said she was comfortable with the state’s original vaccine allocation plan because she believed it did a good job of balancing older people, “who we know are much more likely to die from the coronavirus,” with also creating access to the people who are most likely to get the coronavirus.

“And when it comes to communities of color, across ages, individuals, particularly Black individuals, are more likely to die from the coronavirus and in many cases the rates are higher in those communities because individuals are working in jobs that put them in a public facing type situation,” Arkoosh said.

“So, the inequities here are deeply and profoundly concerning to me. We took a plan that I thought did a good job of balancing the equity issues and now have created a plan that can absolutely create disparities at a time when we should not be doing that,” Arkoosh added.

Commissioner Kenneth E. Lawrence Jr. said “it’s tremendously unfair” that grocery store employees and public transit workers who have been working throughout the pandemic potentially will be forced to wait longer for vaccines.

“We need a lot more vaccine. Hopefully, we will get it ramped up. But for a lot of people who have been working throughout this pandemic, who can’t stay home, they’re going to be delayed now and it’s not right,” Lawrence said.

County health officials feel obligated to abide by the state’s vaccination plan.

“They give us our vaccine and we have been told we are to follow their policies and I think if we deviated greatly that potentially there could be a problem there,” Arkoosh said.

Meanwhile, county officials reminded residents that testing is available for all county residents and those who work in the county and want or need to be tested. The county has established outdoor walk-up testing sites in Pottstown, Norristown, Lansdale, Willow Grove, Ardmore and Green Lane to accommodate those who want to be tested.

The six county-run sites provide self-administered tests at no cost, although insurance will be billed if you have it. The sites do require an appointment for testing.

The six sites are open Monday through Friday, weather permitting. Same-day appointments can be made weekdays starting at 7 a.m. by visiting www.montcopa.org/COVID-19 and clicking on the county testing information button. Residents can also register for a test at any of the six sites by calling 610-970-2937 beginning at 8:30 a.m. daily.

In Pottstown, the testing site is located at the county’s Office of Public Health Pottstown Health Center at 364 King St.

In Norristown, a testing site is located on the parking lot of the Delaware Valley Community Health Norristown Regional Health Center at 1401 DeKalb St.

In Lansdale, a testing site is located at 421 Main St. Another testing site is located at Deep Creek and Snyder roads in the Green Lane Park area.

In Ardmore, a testing site is located at 114 W. Lancaster Avenue. In Willow Grove, a testing site is at First Baptist Church - Crestmont, 1678 Fairview Ave.

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