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PA Secretary of Health provides update on number of vaccines distributed

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, during Wednesday’s virtual public hearing sponsored by The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, said the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is proceeding well but could be better.

Citing new data as of today (Wednesday), Levine said the state has given more than 342,000 vaccines, including 257,000-plus of the first dose, and actually more than 42,000 have received both doses, and are completely immunized.

“Throughout the United States we want to increase the rate of distribution and the rate of administration,” said Levine, who noted that she thinks the process was hindered in December because of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

“I think (that) slowed down the process, but last week and this week we’re going at a much better pace in Pennsylvania, as well as the nation, and we are pretty much right in the middle in terms of states, in terms of the number of vaccines that we are giving,” said Levine.

Levine said it’s not completely accurate to compare “distribution” with the administration numbers.

“It doesn’t all come on Monday. It actually gets spread out to the distribution and transportation throughout the entire week,” said Levine. “It might say on some website that we have gotten 130,000 doses, and it’ll say that on Monday, but doesn’t mean it all came on Monday. We might be getting doses today and tomorrow for that distribution, which influences in terms of when you compare distribution and then you can compare administration, it’ll say it’s distributed doses, but we might not have gotten them yet.”

Levine also said that there is a 24-hour lag time from the time that hospitals give the vaccine to the time that they report it to the Department of Health, and there is an up to 72-hour lag time in terms of CVS and Walgreen’s.

“They might’ve given a vaccine Monday, but I might find out today or tomorrow the date about what they have given,” said Levine. “We always want to make that difference between distribution and allocations as small as possible, but it’s never going to be zero because of those two factors.”

This is a corroboration between the Department of Health, the governor’s office, as well as the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, and the Department of Human Services, said Levine.

“We also are sending vaccines only to hospitals for that mission, but also to qualified health centers in rural areas among other areas, as well as our county municipal health department partners, so that includes Allegheny, but it also includes Erie, etc.,” said Levine.

She noted that Philadelphia has its own programs, so none of the state’s numbers include Philadelphia.

“They (Philadelphia) have their own vaccines. They have their own funding. They have their own program,” said Levine. “In terms of funding I think that this distribution effort has been underfunded in the past by the federal government. They spent about 10 to 12 billion dollars developing the vaccines with the pharmaceutical companies. They allocated to the states approximately 340 million dollars in 2020 for this mission.”

Thinking about that in terms of the population of the country, Levine said it’s about a dollar per person. Pennsylvania received about $14.6 million for the distribution mission, which is about $1.20 per person. In the new stimulus package, there is about $8 billion for the states in territories in big cities, and there is more than $100 billion for Pennsylvania, but the state hasn’t received that money yet. However, when Pennsylvania does receive the money it will help significantly in terms of distribution and administration, she said.

New plans are coming, said Levine, in that the state will be working on all of the other longterm care facilities besides the nursing homes, and CVS and Walgreen’s will be working on that.

“This week, they turned on the Federal Pharmacy Partnership, so we’ll be working with retail pharmacies in terms of distribution and administration, and then yesterday they changed things,” said Levine. “Yesterday afternoon (Tuesday) Secretary Azar instructed us ... to start immunizing seniors 65 and over, and those with chronic medical conditions. That would’ve been part of 1B and 1C.”

The federal government also said they are going to put out more vaccines, said Levine.

“What they’ve been doing is holding back vaccines from the federal government, and so both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccine required two doses. Both required two doses, and so what they’ve been doing is holding back the second dose until the week it’s due and then pushing that out,” said Levine.

That, she said, was to make sure that people could get the second dose no matter what supply chain problems they had.

“They had said that their supply chain is robust, and they’re going to start to push out those second doses,” said Levine. “We hadn’t seen that yet, but hopefully over the next couple weeks we’ll be seeing more vaccines, which we will push out through all the mechanisms that I’ve discussed, and we’ll be able to get more vaccinations.”

Also, when the state receives the funding, they will be starting, with FEMA’s help, some large vaccine clinics.

“We have improved over the last two weeks, as have other states, and we will continue to improve our distribution and our administration of the vaccines as this mission continues,” said Levine.

Levine said the DOH doesn’t know when the vaccine will be given to the general public, which is phase two.

“It depends on how much vaccine there is, as well as those two other vaccines,” said Levine. “(If) we get two more vaccines then that will improve tremendously our ability to get to the general public, and I’m estimating by late spring, maybe summer, hopefully before but I’m trying to be considerate and cautious.”

Levine said hospitals are scheduling patients through their scheduling system. County municipal health departments have the vaccine and they are pushing it through scheduling systems, and of course Walgreen’s and CVS has their own system. And then, as the DOH pushes it out to retail pharmacies they’ll have their scheduling system.

“We are working on a system so people can ping us that they are ready to get their vaccine, and then when their time is ready we’ll be able to push that out to all the vaccination partners to make sure the vaccine is flowing,” said Levine.

Levine said the DOH continues to work on communication and noted the money for that is in the $100 billions.

“As we access that money we’re going to be pushing out a communications plan, and we’re hoping for a robust federal communication plan with the new Biden administration,” said Levine. “The only other couple words I want to say is we have been in discussion with the Biden transition team. I am the president of ASTHO, the Association of State and Territory Health Officials, and we have had some remote discussions with the Biden transition team, but we don’t actually know all of their mind, and they’re supposed to put out some plans this week, tomorrow (Thursday) hopefully. We’ll have to see how their plans jive with the Trump administration plans, and things could change again.”

Levine noted that rural Pennsylvania is primarily receiving the Moderna vaccine because of easy storage requirements.

“Rural Pennsylvania is getting vaccines through their hospitals. It is getting vaccines through federal qualified health centers. It is getting vaccine, for instance for Erie County, through the county municipal health department, and it will soon be getting vaccine through retail pharmacies,” said Levine.

Levine said Walgreen’s and CVS have the mission for longterm care facilities.

“We have not as much of an influence over that,” Levine said. “They get their vaccine from the federal government and they go out and distribute it, and give it, but of course they’re including nursing homes in rural Pennsylvania as well as everywhere else in Pennsylvania.”

DA Coppolo values family, experiences in the courtroom

RIDGWAY — St. Marys native and Elk County District Attorney Tom Coppolo has spent a large portion of his life in a courtroom, and can even recall memories made at the Elk County Courthouse at a young age. For Coppolo, practicing law has been “a bit of a family affair.”

Coppolo noted that his father, Alvin Coppolo, practiced law in Elk County for over 50 years, starting in 1949, and also served as DA of Elk County. Hanging on the wall of Coppolo’s office is a photo of his father along with a portion of a speech his father gave in 1953 while campaigning for DA. His sister, Rita Coppolo Ordiway, also practiced law in Elk County, and also spent time serving as the assistant DA.

“When I was young, I’d come to the courthouse with my dad and help him do title searches,” he said. He recalled his father teaching him how to look through the “massive” books, which he would get out and put away for his dad. “He showed me how things worked, and I got to meet everyone. That was my introduction to the Elk County Courthouse.”

Coppolo, a lawyer of 30 years and former Elk County assistant DA, became the District Attorney in Elk County on Oct. 10, 2019, when the Hon. Shawn T. McMahon became President Judge of Elk and Cameron counties.

The fact that Coppolo will be running for election again in 2021 causes him to recall 20 years ago, when he first ran for DA. While he lost that election by 31 votes, he now realizes that it was not the right time then for him to be DA.

“In 2001, I had three small children; if I had been elected at that point in time, I would not have been able to spend as much time with my children. There are only so many hours in a day, and something would have had to be sacrificed. As it is, the timing is now perfect for me as my youngest daughter is now in college.”

Coppolo described the last nine-plus months of the COVID-19 pandemic to be very challenging.

“Due to safety precautions, things had to change. We have not had a jury trial since March 2020, and we are utilizing advanced telecommunications technology to keep cases moving along while limiting social contact. We are being particularly mindful to keep cases moving for defendants who are incarcerated. Everyone has had to deal with change since March, and we at the courthouse are no different.”

It has been remarkable, said Coppolo, to watch the courthouse staff learn new ways to do things in a socially-distanced environment.

“Everyone has been amazing in their willingness to adapt and work together to achieve the common goal of minimizing the disruption caused by COVID,” he said.

Coppolo added that there were several new “tools” that have been discovered during the pandemic that he hopes might stick around when things return to normal.

Coppolo loves working with his staff and local law enforcement, and the work that comes along with being Elk County DA.

“Right now, I feel like I am exactly where I am supposed to be in life.”

With the job comes always being on call, said Coppolo, and it’s difficult not to take the work home. In fact, during COVID, he said he has created a second office in his basement. Thanks to the computer and his network, he is able to work at any time, which makes taking work home a little more enjoyable.

Aside from his job, Coppolo said his favorite things to do are spend time with friends and family, and travel new places with his wife.

“I stopped trying to collect things — I try to collect memories,” he said. “I consider myself very fortunate.”

Roy introduced as new fire chief to DuBois City Council

DuBOIS — Outgoing fire Chief Joe Mitchell introduced his successor to the DuBois City Council at Monday’s regular meeting.

Tony Roy will serve as chief for 2021-22. His is joined by Deputy Chief Michael Federici and Assistant Chief Jim Bolam.

Roy said he looks forward to serving and suggested that the council consider requiring lock boxes on businesses and rental properties and standardizing larger lettering for house numbers to make it easier to find them.

Mitchell provided a combined report for his tenure in 2019-20. Those 24 months included 59 structure fires, 105 fire alarms and 112 mutual aid assists.

Broken down by company, Volunteers had 312 calls, Friendship 266, JE DuBois 280, 4th Ward 348 and Goodwill 261.

DuBois received mutual aid on nine occasions.

Traffic studies

City Engineer Chris Nasuti noted that PennDOT will conduct traffic studies using counters on First Street and College Place from January through April.

The data collected will be incorporated into a statewide database that will be used in screening and prioritizing locations for potential safety improvements.

PennDOT noted that the counters “are not being set for any road project or speed trap.”

Subdivision approved

The council voted unanimously to accept the City Planning Commission’s recommendation for approval for Day Property Holdings, LLC to subdivide the property at 403 Patterson Ave., the former Jehovah Witness building.

‘Back the Blue’

City Manager John “Herm” Suplizio noted that Goodwill Industries is selling “Back the Blue” T-shirts in support of police departments.

He noted that Goodwill is taking some heckling for the promotion.

However, “I applaud those who show support for our police,” he said, and encourages anyone who feels the same way to buy a shirt.

Public comment

In one of the few instances in which anyone from the public attends a council meeting, let alone speaks, Darrel Ferguson offered several observations.

Locally, he said that with respect to the cutting of trees along Maple Avenue, the council should plant a tree for every one it cuts.

Mayor Ed Walsh said the city planted more than 1,200 trees on the reservoir property last year.

Walsh noted, and Ferguson agreed, that many of the trees that have been removed along Maple Avenue were “rotten to the core.”

The tree removal is part of a major rehabilitation project that will install a new water line and new sidewalks.

Good of the order

Suplizio, Walsh and council members congratulated the new fire chiefs and thanked Mitchell for his dedicated service.

They also thanked police Chief Blaine Clark and his officers for the work they do, including a major drug seizure as the result of a traffic stop Sunday night.

The Public Works Department was complimented for doing an excellent job in preparing for the 18-inch snowfall in December that crippled other neighboring communities.

Next meeting

The council will hold its next work session at 4 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21. The next regular meeting will convene at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 25. Meetings are held in the council chambers in the city building at 16 W. Scribner Ave.

DOH Secretary Levine: COVID-19 vaccines are 'safe and effective'

HARRISBURG — The key to getting past the coronavirus pandemic are the vaccines, according to Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine.

“The vaccines have been developed through Operation Warp Speed, and it really is a medical triumph that two safe and effective, I repeat safe and effective, vaccines have been developed in less than a year,” said Levine during a virtual public hearing on the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines in rural Pennsylvania held by The Center for Rural Pennsylvania Board of Directors.

Levine said this is because new vaccine technology has been being worked on for the last five or 10 years that came to fruition with both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

“But in addition it is an expensive, but really remarkable funding formula where federal government pays these pharmaceutical companies all at the same time to work to develop vaccines, and they came through,” said Levine.

Levine noted that there are two more vaccines in the immediate pipeline that are either completed or completing clinical trials — the AstraZeneca vaccine and the Johnson and Johnson Janssen vaccine.

“We are hoping that this spring, they will actually submit their data to the FDA and the CDC for their evaluation,” said Levine. “Then, there is actually two more in the pipeline, but we have less information about those.”

Levine said she believes the science is very clear about the safety and effectiveness of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

“They have gone through robust clinical trials,” said Levine. “Vaccines often will have years and years of analysis before the FDA will do a full licensure, and so there was no way of course that they could do that because of the severity of the pandemic now. But, we have in medicine, complete confidence about the safety and the effectiveness of the vaccine, and there is no evidence of any politicization that has influenced the process at all.”

Though they both involve the same type of biological mechanisms, Levine said there are differences between Pfizer and Moderna. One of the biggest differences that influences its distribution is the storage requirements.

She said the Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept at minus 80 degrees Centigrade or Celsius, that’s an ultra-cold environment. The Moderna vaccine can be basically kept frozen as any freezer would have.

“That has certainly influenced our ability to distribute it and where these vaccines go,” said Levine.

Operation Warp Speed informs the DOH a week or two ahead of time what they estimate the state’s allocation will be on a weekly basis.

For the last five weeks the state has been concentrating on the first phase of the rollout plan — Phase 1A, which includes health-care personnel, employees and residents of long-term care facilities, emergency services personnel and other first contact workers are scheduled to be vaccinated.

The latest plan adds a Phase 1C, and moves the general public from Phase 3 to Phase 2. There is no longer a Phase 3, said Levine.

Phase 1B targets people aged 75 and older, people living in or working in other congregate care facilities, USPS workers and first responders. It also includes essential frontline employees in the following sectors:

  • Food and agriculture
  • Manufacturing
  • Grocery store workers
  • Education
  • Clergy and “essential support” for houses of worship
  • Public transit
  • Caregivers working in early childhood and adult day programs

Additional sectors are covered in Phase 1C, which includes people aged 65 to 74 and anyone else over the age of 16 with a high-risk condition. It covers essential workers in the following sectors:

  • Transportation and logistics
  • Water and wastewater
  • Housing construction
  • Food service
  • Finance, including bank tellers
  • Information technology
  • Communications
  • Energy
  • Legal services
  • Federal, state, county and local government, including elected officials, members of the judiciary and their staffs
  • Media
  • Public safety
  • Public health

Supporting local restaurants while exploring the area

Editor’s note: This is an introduction to a new feature by Ben Destefan, Courier Express editor, titled “Ben’s Bites” that is intended to support local restaurants while giving the new resident recommendations of places to eat.

Still relatively new to the area, my wife and I have continued to try various restaurants on the weekends, primarily wanting to dine in when we’re able.

So far, we’ve leaned on suggestions from colleagues at work who are more familiar with local favorites.

Last Friday, those conversations led us to the Nelson House in DuBois, where we had a first of what will now likely be many more enjoyable experiences.

After we left, it got me thinking.

During what has been an extremely difficult time for restaurants, how could we support local operations while also gaining greater knowledge of our surroundings?

Simple — mix work and pleasure by patronizing a different restaurant each week (or two weeks) and then highlight the experience in a new feature for the Courier Express titled “Ben’s Bites.”

Here’s how it will come together:

  • We want our readers to select the restaurants, asking you to share your favorite places to eat within the Tri-County area. Personal request — restaurants need to be located within the primary coverage area of the Courier Express, and no more than 30-40 minutes driving time from DuBois.
  • Recommendations should be emailed to: bites@thecourierexpress.com
  • Recommendations should include the name of the restaurant and what the reader’s favorite menu item is at that restaurant. I won’t commit to choosing the same menu item, but it will be considered. Appetizers are welcome.
  • There is no way I’ll be able to attend all area restaurants, so selections will be made on which restaurants receive the most recommendations from readers. This is solely up to readers to decide. There is also no timeline on how long we’ll continue the feature. We’d prefer to at least run it for a few months. This will depend on response from readers.
  • Family-owned establishments will be given priority.
  • The plan is to feature one restaurant every week to two weeks. Life happens — as do government mandates — so I can’t fully promote once a week, but I’ll do my best for at least every two weeks.
  • The feature will be a commentary about the experience. It is not intended to be a review, rather to highlight the restaurant’s atmosphere, food, and so on. I will not publish any negative thoughts. Readers will be able to draw their own conclusions.
  • Restaurants will not be notified in advance of being featured. The idea is for the experience to be as natural as possible.
  • This is intended to be fun and supportive of local businesses. Please keep it that way.

As for preferences: Meat, pasta and some seafood are all personal favorites. Same goes for my wife, although her desire for spicy foods is much higher than mine. Additionally, I’m a fan of complementing a nice dinner with an adult beverage, so places with a decent beer selection would be a bonus. We’ll try just about anything, so there are no limits on suggestions.

And, since the Nelson House sparked this concept, here’s a short snippet of what these features will look like:

Being greeted by a large, inviting bar upon walking in quickly brought thoughts of a return trip when things are “back to normal.”

The building is quaint and comforting, exemplifying its name as a “house.”

Considering it was our first time, we went with potstickers as an appetizer, one of our usual go-tos when dining out. Those, paired with a frosty mug of Sam Adams Winter Lager, set the tone for a solid spread.

Exploring the options, while also going for variety, I went with the stuffed shrimp while Lindsey chose the chicken marsala.

The entrees arrived in very timely fashion, with my shrimp overflowing with crab meat. Of course I just dug in, going for the single bite that actually proved difficult because of the portion size of each “stuffed” piece. This was not a bad thing.

Crossing over to my wife’s chicken — remember, sharing is caring — the flavor and juiciness of the cut was fantastic. So good, in fact, what little was left made its way to the refrigerator for later.

A reasonable and worthwhile price tag followed, certainly putting The Nelson House on the map of places to eat for these new locals.

— Please send restaurant recommendations to: bites@thecourierexpress.com