June 17, 2021

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Wolf visits Lancaster’s mass vaccination site to boast its transportation plan, but transit workers are still left out of Phase 1A | PA Power and Policy: Pennsylvania State News

County residents who lack access to a car or other transportation can get a free ride to the community vaccination center at Park City through the area’s mass transit provider, Red Rose Transit Authority.

But bus operators tasked with transporting people to the mass vaccination clinic are concerned  they are still not eligible to be vaccinated under the state’s current vaccination roll-out plan.

“When you get on a transit bus or even a school bus, you’re in closed quarters and it makes you disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19,” said John Habanec, an RRTA bus operator and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1241 president. 

Habanec spoke with LNP | LancasterOnline on Wednesday shortly after Gov. Tom Wolf visited Lancaster to highlight the county’s efforts to create a centralized, accessible location for its vaccination clinic. Wolf lauded the transit authority’s plans to help transport the county’s many elderly and other high-risk populations.

“[This clinic] is a really good example of what local folks can do to make sure that people are getting the vaccine as that vaccine becomes available,” Wolf said.

David Kilmer, executive director of the South Central Transit Authority, said very few RRTA  drivers have been able to get vaccinated under the 1A category.

RRTA has not agreed to the local transit union’s repeated requests over the past year to lower the maximum number of passengers on its buses, Habanec said. As the transportation agency offers free services to Park City Mall, the union is concerned that buses could become overcrowded.

“When you’re in a transit bus, we have no social distancing, we never did have it in a transit bus,” Habanec said. “Five people on the bus or 35 people on the bus, we had to move that bus along.”

Most transit agencies in the state have sent letters to lawmakers asking that transit workers be moved into Phase 1A, the highest priority group under the state’s distribution plan, said Jennifer Granger, the deputy secretary of multimodal transportation for the state Department of Transportation.

“The challenge is transit drivers reside in the 1B category, although some of them may have had the preexisting conditions (that would put them in 1A)… but as a whole, that classification is next in the queue,” Granger said. “They’re essential workers. We want to get them vaccinated, it’s simply a reflection of not enough vaccines.”

Wolf’s office said there is no plan currently to move transit workers into the 1A category.

The national ATU said 141 members have died from the COVID-19 virus.

“In no small part, our efforts have been designed to buy time until safe and effective vaccines became available,” the national ATU says on its website. “That time has arrived…. We must now work to ensure mass participation in vaccination programs by transit workers in order to protect ourselves, our coworkers, our families, our communities and the transit industry.”


Wolf’s visit 

Kilmer, the South Central Transit Authority executive director, said during the press conference with Wolf that the three bus routes servicing the Park City mall would offer free rides to the center. Additionally, Red Rose Access will provide free shared rides for those looking to get to the center or to other other vaccination sites.

“Our free services will be offered as long as the vaccination center is open,” Kilmer said.

Each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties has some form of mass transportation system. So far, 39 counties have launched a free transportation plan to mass vaccination clinics or doctor’s offices to increase accessibility for those who want to be vaccinated.

Wolf announced a specialized distribution plan for teachers last week using the state’s first allocation of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Teachers are still considered as part of Phase 1B of the state’s rollout, meaning teachers will be able to access the state’s first batch of Johnson & Johnson vaccines and are not competing with the state’s most vulnerable populations, state Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Mount Joy, said during the press conference.

Wolf, in his remarks, repeatedly stressed that demand for vaccines is exceeding supply.

“Again, I might sound like I’m pointing a finger here, but we have not received enough vaccines from the federal government yet, but each week that number keeps increasing and we want to make sure that as the supply gets closer to the demand we are ready to make sure that everyone who wants a vaccine can get one,” he said.

One million Pennsylvanians have been fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, senior Department of Health adviser Lindsey Mauldin said at the press conference. The state’s health systems requested more than 424,000 first vaccines for this week. The federal government only allocated about half of that, Mauldin added.

Asked if the Lancaster vaccination center would receive direct allocations from the state, Wolf said the state “will do everything we can to make sure that the places that are set up and ready to go get an equitable and fair allocation, but overall we have supply that is basically half of what demand is right now, so that affects everybody.”

Earlier in the week, county Commissioner Josh Parsons tweeted that Wolf “can come and highlight what our community has built.  But let’s be clear, more empty rhetoric is not welcomed” and that what the county needs from the state is more vaccine doses.

“We’ve created a better solution than the state’s rollout, which is fragmented and has frustrated many people,” Parsons said after Wednesday’s press conference. “My expectation is, because it is an example and that it is unprecedented, that the Department of Health (should) support it. And they don’t have to do anything but provide the vaccines for it.”

Lancaster will likely be eligible for a larger vaccine allocation under the state’s soon-to-be-finalized strategic plan, Aument said. This plan would improve the state’s current allocation formula to factor in population, COVID-19 deaths and successful “throughput” to get vaccines into arms at sites like Lancaster’s, he added.

If the state were able to secure a supply of vaccinations to allow the site to administer its 6,000 shots-per-day capacity, the entire county could be vaccinated within 100 days, state Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster city, said Wednesday.

“To think that by this summer we might actually get back to some sense of normalcy is a real wonderful concept to think of,” Sturla said.