- Associated Press - Monday, April 12, 2021

Pennsylvania will expand eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine to all adults beginning Tuesday, nearly a week ahead of schedule, as supply begins to catch up with demand and state officials try to keep pace with a mutating virus.

Vaccine providers told the Health Department they were having trouble filling appointments, signaling that it was time for the state to abandon its phased rollout and make the shots available to everyone aged 16 and older, the acting health secretary, Alison Beam, said Monday.

The quickened pace comes as Pennsylvania grapples with a spring surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations,

“We need to maintain acceleration of the vaccine rollout, especially as case counts and hospitalization rates have increased,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement.

Most states have already established universal eligibility ahead of an April 19 deadline set by President Joe Biden. Wolf had said last week that the state was taking a more gradual approach in hopes of avoiding the kind of bottleneck that occurred when Pennsylvania rapidly expanded vaccine eligibility to everyone aged 65 and older in January.

At that time, supplies were low, Pennsylvania lagged behind other states in administering the doses it did get, and many residents were frustrated by their inability to schedule an appointment.

The state has since improved its vaccine rollout. About 39% of Pennsylvania’s population of 12.8 million has now received at least one vaccine dose, 11th among the states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With 2.3 million residents already fully vaccinated and the supply crunch beginning to ease, state officials are concerned that vaccine hesitancy will soon become a bigger challenge. Rep. Tim O’Neal, R-Washington, a member of the state’s coronavirus task force, said Monday that supply has outstripped demand at several recent clinics in western Pennsylvania.

Trying to stoke interest and improve access - particularly in minority and underserved communities - the state plans to hold 120 mobile clinics statewide in the coming months to administer the vaccine and address any lingering doubts about its safety and efficacy.

“In order to solve health care inequality and reach our vulnerable and underserved communities, we need to meet our people where they are,” said George Fernandez, founder and CEO of Latino Connection, which offers health and wellness programming in low-income areas and will operate the mobile units.

Beam called April a “critical turning point in this pandemic” and said that addressing vaccine hesitancy will be critical in helping the state defeat the pandemic, which has sickened more than 1 million people and killed more than 25,000 statewide.

The state is aiming to get at least 80% of the adult population vaccinated. Nearly 50% of those 18 and older have been vaccinated so far, according to the CDC.

Pennsylvania is racing to vaccinate amid a recent surge in new infections. Daily coronavirus cases have risen more than 20% over the past two weeks, to an average of more than 4,300 per day, according to data from Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

One hopeful sign: The rate of increase has slowed.

“While we’re not at a plateau, we are reaching a bit of a plateau as to how quickly that rate was increasing,” Beam said.

Hospitalizations, meanwhile, are up more than 50% over the past three weeks, according to the Health Department. Deaths attributed to COVID-19 have remained steady, averaging about 31 per day across the state.

Philadelphia, which receives its vaccine allotment directly from the federal government, also made more people eligible on Monday - from janitors to construction workers to bank tellers - but is waiting until April 19 to expand eligibility to the general public.

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