COVID-19 vaccination record cards are given out to signify the number of doses administered. The distribution of vaccinations has fallen behind the anticipated pace for Bethlehem residents. (Courtesy of Nicole Jones)

Bethlehem vaccine shortage slows access for those eligible

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Due to vaccine shortages in Bethlehem, not all who are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccines have been able to, which has delayed progression beyond the rollout’s first phase. 

According to Bethlehem’s vaccination dashboard, as of March 20, over 21,000 people have been vaccinated. 

Pennsylvania is currently in Phase 1A of the vaccine rollout. Pennsylvania’s Department of Health website defines Phase 1A as “vaccinating those most at-risk of illness.” According to the website, this includes health care workers, Pennsylvanians living in long-term care facilities, persons age 65 and older, and those age 16-64 with high-risk conditions.

Every week, vaccine providers submit requests to the Department of Health for how much of the vaccine they will need for both first and second doses, said Kristen Wenrich, Bethlehem’s health director. Wenrich said the supply does not meet demand at this point.

“We’ve been putting out fires really since day one,” Wenrich said. “As soon as you think you have one fire put out, then three more start.”

She said her office has been overwhelmed with calls, emails and people showing up to clinics begging for a vaccine. However, the number of individuals in Phase 1A is so high that even those who are eligible are struggling to schedule a vaccination appointment because of the supply limitations at clinics, Wenrich said.  

Bethlehem City Councilwoman Olga Negrón said the shortage was caused in part by the disorganization left by the previous presidential administration. She said the government itself was unaware of how many vaccines were available, causing the municipalities to face challenges.

“We had no plan, and we had no organization, so there were going to be glitches,” Negrón said. 

Vaccines intended for Bethlehem residents were being distributed to those eligible in smaller, surrounding municipalities, Negrón said. After a state-level meeting was called, the glitch was corrected but vaccine distribution had already fallen behind pace. 

Negrón said smaller municipalities, such as Freemansburg and Fountain Hill, which lack health bureaus, rely on Bethlehem for help.

Additionally, the transportation of vaccines was delayed by recurring snow storms, Negrón said. 

Negrón said she is hopeful the new presidential administration will be better equipped to handle vaccinations and expects by May everyone who wants to be vaccinated will be able to do so. 

Wenrich said up to 1,500 people are being vaccinated every three hours. Negrón said the city’s event centers are able to safely move hundreds of people through the vaccination process. 

Ernest Pile, a Bethlehem resident, has received the first dose of the Moderna vaccine. Pile said he had no issues signing up for a time slot and urges anyone who is able to get vaccinated. 

“Do not avoid getting the shot because it is life and death,” he said. “Period.”

Pile said he hopes people will continue to follow CDC guidelines, wear masks and get their vaccines when appropriate. 

Negrón said she has concerns about residents becoming so impatient that they no longer want to be vaccinated. After hearing her constituents’ frustrations, she urges individuals to stay hopeful and continue practicing safety measures. 

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