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COVID-19 Moderna vaccine mistake expected to delay second doses in Pa. 

A miscommunication between the Pennsylvania Department of Health and providers led some to use doses that were supposed to be saved.

By Brett Sholtis

FILE PHOTO: Mississippi Air Guard Tech. Sgt. Exstrella Smith withdraws a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for injection on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, in Flowood, Miss.

Rogelio V. Solis / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: Mississippi Air Guard Tech. Sgt. Exstrella Smith withdraws a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for injection on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, in Flowood, Miss.

(Harrisburg) — Tens of thousands in Pennsylvania who are awaiting coronavirus vaccines from Moderna are likely to face delays in getting those shots, due to a miscommunication between the state and health care providers.

The vaccines were given to people as first doses even though they were supposed to go to people who were awaiting their second doses, said Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam. This has been happening since January, she said.

“In the short term, we are faced with Moderna second dose requests far exceeding” what is available, Beam said during an online news conference.

The Health Department is requesting 200,000 vaccines this week, expecting to need 140,000 to fill a gap in second doses, said spokesman Barry Ciccocioppo. More may be needed to fill that gap in coming weeks, he said.

Between 30,000 and 60,000 people likely will need to have their second dose appointments rescheduled over three weeks, Ciccocioppo said. Additionally, people will have to have their first dose appointments rescheduled. More than 100,000 people are likely to have either their first or second dose appointment delayed, he said. Federal weekly allocations are expected to increase in coming weeks, he noted.

The department considered suspending first doses for a week to make sure people get their second doses, Ciccocioppo said. However, they determined that they could still get everyone their second shots within six weeks, the maximum time between the first and second doses as recommended by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Guidelines.

Those who received the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine are not affected.

The Health Department is still working to determine which providers used doses that had been earmarked as second doses. Penn State Health says it used some second doses as first doses—and did so under what it believed was guidance from the Health Department.

At the center of the confusion is a conference call between the Health Department and providers, according to Penn State Health spokesman Scott Gilbert.

“On a call with providers approximately two weeks ago, the PA Department of Health specifically directed providers to not hold back COVID-19 vaccine doses for second vaccinations,” Gilbert said in a statement. “At that time, DOH also assured providers that additional vaccine would be made available for use as second doses. Penn State Health followed this directive, as it has all DOH guidance since vaccines initially became available in Pennsylvania in December.”

The Health Department’s guidance not to “hold back” doses did not mean that second doses were to be used as first doses, Ciccocioppo said.

“We should have been more clear that we meant don’t hold back first doses.”

The information comes days after the Health Department began work with a bipartisan legislative committee focused on improving Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

About 1.3 million people in Pennsylvania have gotten at least one dose of vaccine. More than 436,000 people have gotten two doses, completing their vaccination.

This story was updated throughout the day as new information came in. 

Brett Sholtis
Brett Sholtis

Brett Sholtis was a health reporter for WITF/Transforming Health until early 2023. Sholtis is the 2021-2022 Reveal Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal Grantee for Mental Health Investigative Journalism with the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. His award-winning work on problem areas in mental health policy and policing helped to get a woman moved from a county jail to a psychiatric facility. Sholtis is a University of Pittsburgh graduate and a Pennsylvania Army National Guard Kosovo campaign veteran.

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