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Businesses frustrated by slow vaccine roll out are starting to see hope

Cars line up at a Lehigh Valley Health Network COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Dorney Park in South Whitehall Township. The health network planned to vaccinate 4,000 people on March 11. PHOTO/LVHN

There seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel with the COVID-19 pandemic as vaccine rates begin to pick up in Pennsylvania.

Still, many are frustrated with the slow pace up until this point – especially in getting vaccines to those working with the public who aren’t health care workers or teachers in group 1a of the state’s vaccine roll out.

Mike Axiotis, president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Restaurant Group, which runs Red Robin restaurants in Eastern and Central Pennsylvania, said he wants vaccines made available for restaurant workers faster.

“The health and safety of our team members is paramount,” he said. “We’d like to see our employees get the vaccine.”

While some of his staffers have qualified for vaccines, most haven’t since most restaurant workers are in the 1c category — and that’s frustrating for everyone. Since the restaurant industry has had some of the strictest COVID-19 restrictions placed upon it, consideration should be made to help them get back to business faster, he said.

“Should we be on the top, no, but we should be higher on the list than we were placed,” Axiotis said. “A large majority of our employees feel the same way.

Brittney Waylen, vice president of government affairs for the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, said many small and large businesses in the region have been expressing frustration with the pace of the roll out. She said she’s heard from businesses with public facing employees to regular office workers.

“They need their employees to be vaccinated to get back inside those big office buildings downtown,” she said.

Some optimism

But she said she has been hearing a more positive tone from employers in the last two weeks as they start to see more people getting vaccinated. She’s urging businesses to keep vigilant, but look forward.

“There’s been a lot of finger pointing, which is unfortunate,” Waylen said. “We’re extremely proud of the job our hospitals are doing in distributing the vaccines.”

Colleen Sprissler, senior director of operations at St. Luke’s Health Network, admitted there was some organizational confusion from the state at the beginning and delays as vaccines were being manufactured, but  said the public should be seeing vaccines coming at a faster pace. Most of the logistics with the state have been ironed out, and manufacturing of vaccines has increased, so more should be available in the coming weeks.

St. Luke’s was looking to vaccinate 9,000 people this week and expects similar numbers of vaccines to be made available in coming weeks.

Other health networks, health bureaus and pharmacies are also getting vaccines out.

Venues where large numbers of people can be vaccinated are also being used, from Dorney Park in South Whitehall Township to the Pocono Speedway in Long Pond and the former BonTon Department Store at Park City Center in Lancaster.

While Sprissler said vaccine distribution is definitely improving on the state level, some have still been critical of Pennsylvania’s vaccine roll out.

Catching up

Pennsylvania ranked 30 out of the 50 states in the amount of vaccines it has distributed.

According to the latest data posted March 17 by the U.S. Center for Disease Control, Pennsylvania
has received about 5.5 million vaccines to date and has administered 4.3 million, leaving it with a distribution rate of just over 78%

Comparatively, North Dakota, which is ranked no. 1 of the U.S. states in vaccine distribution, has a nearly 89% distribution rate. The state’s population, however, is much smaller. North Dakota has received only 362,400 vaccine doses and has administered 321,693.

But neighboring New Jersey, which similar in population size and density, also has a higher distribution rate at nearly 87%. It has received 3.7 million vaccine doses and has administered 3.2 million.

Maggi Barton, deputy press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said there have been challenges, but challenges the department sees as going away.

“When the vaccine was first received on Dec. 14, 2020, the biggest problem facing every vaccination effort – across the country – was the very limited supply of vaccine. Within three months of vaccine distribution, there are now three vaccine types that have received Emergency Use Authorizations by the federal government,increasing the manufactures’ capacity and availability to make and distribute vaccines,” she said.

Ready to get going

After months of virtual events and social distanced shows, Kassie Hilgert, president and CEO of ArtsQuest, which has two Bethlehem arts venues and organizes the nation’s largest outdoor art and music festival, Musikfest, said she’s eager to see the vaccine roll out pick up and is hopeful for a return to normal at ArtsQuest’s venues.

“The big hope is that we’re now moving towards opening versus closing down,” Hilgert said. “I wish we could have had that robustness of rollout in the beginning, but I’m looking ahead.”

Her biggest concern is wanting to know how long it’s going to take for enough people to be vaccinated in order to achieve the “herd immunity” needed to go back to full capacity and host large events.

Because that is unknown, it is hampering much of the planning for Musikfest, which is held at the start of August each year.

ArtsQuest does plan to have an event with more live, in-person attractions this year, but the size and scope of it still relies heavily on public safety, so most decisions and announcements on plans will have to wait until they know more about the success of the vaccinations.

As for who is getting the vaccines, St. Luke’s Sprissler said hospitals are following the state Health Department’s mandate to vaccinate the most vulnerable members of the population first, but she said the public should hear soon about when vaccines will be made available for those categorized as groups 1b and 1c within a few weeks.

Barton said the state health department is aware of President Joe Biden’s call to have vaccines available to all by May.

“The Governor, and the Legislative Vaccine Task Force, announced targeted strategies to ensure Pennsylvania will meet President Biden’s bold goal of making every American adult eligible to receive a vaccine by May 1,” she said.

That’s good news said Waylen.

“We support getting our businesses open as soon as possible,” she said.

Writer Stacy Wescoe has her finger on the pulse of the business community in the Greater Lehigh Valley and keeps you up-to-date with technology and trends, plus what coworkers and competitors are talking about around the water cooler — and on social media. She can be reached at [email protected] or 610-807-9619, ext. 4104. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.

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