READING, Pa. – The Berks County commissioners used the majority of their weekly meeting on Thursday to be updated on the administration of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Brian Gottschall, the county's director of emergency services, stressed that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), vaccine supplies may be received and administered only by licensed healthcare providers and not orchestrated by county or local governments.
"There is no obligation for any vaccine recipient to coordinate with local government or other providers," Gottschall said. "They must work under direction of state government, as laid out in plans, but there is no obligation to work together. Once they have the vaccine, they are free to do what they believe to be the right thing in concert with the rules of the federal government."
Gottschall said that while the federal government provides the vaccine, the administration is managed by the state. In Pennsylvania, that falls under the direction of the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the state's COVID-19 task force.
While Berks County has so far received 18,000 doses of the vaccine, Gottschall said that doesn't mean all of those doses will be given to county residents. That simply means local hospitals could be administering vaccines to healthcare workers and others in the phase-one recipient group who have addresses outside of the county.
Of the 18,000 doses, Gottshall said 11,700 doses were received by the two acute care hospitals in the county.
There are currently five providers in Berks: Penn State Health St. Joseph Medical Center, Tower Health's Reading Hospital, the Berks Community Health Center, St. Luke facilities, and Lehigh Valley Health Network facilities.
While all five are administering the vaccine to 1A groups within phase one, Tower Health, St. Luke's and Lehigh facilities are also administering to 1B groups.
People in 1A groups include healthcare personnel and those in long-term care facilities, and people in 1B include frontline workers with close proximity to the public, and those over the age of 75, with an emphasis on those with underlying health conditions.
The next group -- 1C -- includes other essential workers and those over the age of 65, with an emphasis on those with underlying health conditions. It will also include anyone in the 16-64 age range with high-risk health conditions.
Phase-two begins when there will be an expanded supply of the vaccine and will include everyone else who does not fit into a phase-one category.
Gottschall said he does not know why some providers have begun to administer to the 1B group, while the state said it is still only at 1A.
"Providers are doing what they believe to be in the best interest of the community," he said. "The best answer I could give is that we should all do our best to take advantage of whatever is available in our community and not get wrapped up as to why there are differences from one location to another."
While a positive outlook on the administration of the vaccine remains, Gottschall said he believes there will be a slowing down within in the next several weeks due to the need for second doses.
"That means people administering the vaccine can't see new people at the same time," Gottshall said. "If there is not a growing number of those receiving (administering) the vaccine doses, we will have to accept there will be a slow down."
But he added that there could also be additional vaccines approved for single doses, which would open the door for people to be able to access vaccinations through physicians and pharmacies.
"The most important prediction here is that there will be people getting the vaccine administered well into the second half of 2021," Gottshall said. "Not everyone is going to get it next month. Everybody who is involved is doing what they can."
During the public comment portion of the meeting, two residents once again called on the commissioners to establish a Berks County health department.
Wyomissing resident Jane Palmer said economies with health departments are better qualified to handle the COVID-19 crisis.
"The Reading Hospital is close to the breaking point from the strain," Palmer said. "People are dying unattended in the hallways. It's time for the commissioners to take responsibility for the safety and health of our community. Inaction has cost us dearly."
Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt said while he remains open to future discussions, the endeavor would have a significant cost of about $4 million to $6 million and would take at least two years to set up.
Barnhardt also directed those interested in the issue to contact his office to receive a previously-made presentation on the fundamentals of establishing a county health department.
In response to Palmer's comment about Reading Hospital, Tower Health released the following statement Thursday afternoon:
"Just like hospitals all across the country Reading Hospital – Tower Health is experiencing a significant increase in COVID-19 patients who must be admitted to the hospital, nearly double what we saw in the spring.
"Our team members are continuing to provide the high level of care our patients expect from Reading Hospital, even under these extreme circumstances. All Tower Health facilities are a safe environment to receive care. While COVID-19 is still in the community we do encourage patients to utilize alternate care options, when appropriate, including Virtual Care and Tower Health Urgent Care. It is important that patients maintain their regular engagement with their primary care providers.
"The best way for the public to support their local healthcare providers is to continue wearing a mask in public, practicing social distancing, and proper hand hygiene to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our community."