Pa. experts answer your questions on how to get a COVID-19 vaccine

Vaccinate PA

A member of the U.S. Armed Forces administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a police officer at a FEMA community vaccination center on March 2, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

For more than a year now, COVID-19 has been presenting new challenges and creating many, many questions for everyone. abc27 answers some of your common questions with the help of two local experts:

  • Barry Ciccocioppo is the communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
  • Mark Goedecker is the vice president and regional medical director at WellSpan Health, which has administered over 100,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccines across Adams, Franklin, Lebanon, Lancaster and York counties.

Q: What options do people have in terms of methods for scheduling vaccine appointments?

Ciccocioppo: Right now people can go onto our website, health.pa.gov, and we have a map of all of the providers of vaccine. People can click on the dots on the map that are near them and select the provider, and the contact information is there. They can reach out to see if there are appointments and schedule an appointment.

Better than that, we have a tool called Your Turn. People can go to our website, use the Your Turn tool where they can answer a couple simple questions, and it will tell them if they are eligible right now, in Phase 1A, to be vaccinated, or in a future phase. And regardless of which phase they’re in, it allows them to provide contact information, and then the Department of Health will reach out to them when there are vaccination opportunities in their area.

If there’s anybody that doesn’t have access to the internet or has trouble using their computer, you can call our toll-free number, 877-PAHEALTH, and we have operators there who can help guide people through the Your Turn tool and also find providers on the map that are near them. We are not able to make the appointment for people, but we can get them to the place where they have the contact information so they can make the appointment for themselves.

(Note: Your Turn does not currently tell users which locations have available doses at any given time, but it does direct them to the DOH map to see nearby vaccine providers. It will also notify users when local community vaccination clinics are opening.)

Goedecker: Through WellSpan right now we have two options. One is going through what’s called “MyWellSpan,” which is our patient portal. It’ll walk you through how to schedule an appointment or at least get on a list to get scheduled. We also have the WellSpan COVID hotline, which is a phone number you can call. It’s 855-851-3641.

(Note: Individuals do not need to be WellSpan patients to sign up for MyWellSpan or call the hotline.)

Q: What advice do you have for people trying to schedule appointments?

Ciccocioppo: I’ve heard from people that they’ve had pretty good success when they get on the computer or on the phone first thing in the morning to schedule appointments. Vaccinations are happening in Pennsylvania every day…so we know people are getting the appointments, and they’re getting the vaccine. We want to do everything we can to help them get the appointment easily, and that will happen when we have more vaccine available. Right now, there’s not enough vaccine to meet the demand.

Goedecker: Right now it’s frustrating, and we understand that there’s a lot of people that want to get vaccines, and the appointments are not as available, not just with WellSpan, but I think we hear about this across the country.

Right now we are not doing walk-in appointments, and I think that’s an important thing for people to realize, so we would encourage them to go through either MyWellSpan or the COVID hotline. By doing that, they can get their names in there. We do have a list of patients, and then we are actually reaching out to them when appointments become available.

The other thing is just continue to keep trying, especially through MyWellSpan. We open up more appointments — and we’re opening them up on a week-by-week basis now — so more and more appointments are becoming available.

Q: Can people be put on waiting lists to get the vaccine, and if so, how does that work?

Ciccocioppo: Some individual providers do have waiting lists, and you can again use that map to find your local provider and then use their contact information. Some of them have online portals where you can get on a waiting list.

Goedecker: MyWellSpan is one way. You can go through, answer a few questions that will try to put you into the right phase of the state, and then you’ll be notified based on your phase and how you answered those questions if there’s an appointment that potentially is opening up and that you can schedule.

With the phone calls, we have people that are answering those calls. They are looking for appointments to try to help patients out if they are available. So we would encourage them to keep contacting that to see if they can get an appointment if they don’t have access to the computer.

Q: Is there a preferred method — by phone or online — for scheduling appointments? Are there differences based on how you schedule the appointment?

Ciccocioppo: It’s all up to the individual vaccine providers. They have their own systems that they’ve invested a lot of time and energy and money into setting up, and so some providers have very robust online scheduling systems, and some are better over the phone.

Goedecker: It really depends on what’s available from an appointment standpoint. So like I said, we are opening up appointments on a week-by-week basis.
They’re able to do either one (schedule online or by phone). We really like our patient portal, MyWellSpan, and we’d encourage people to sign up for it. We’ve had a lot of people that have signed up for it over the past few months with the vaccine, and it’s a really great tool that we encourage people to look at if they do have access to either a smart phone or computer with internet access.

Q: How are mass vaccination sites chosen?

Ciccocioppo: The community vaccination clinics have been part of the state’s plan all along. We’re working with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to get some of those prepared and set up.

Right now there’s not enough vaccine to support community vaccination clinics all over the state. Some local regions are pooling the vaccine resources of local providers to set up sites, such as the one in Lancaster opening today. There’s also discussions happening about a community vaccination clinic somewhere in the HACC parking lot. So there are opportunities that will be coming to people when more vaccine is available.

Q: Are mass vaccination sites, such as the new one in Lancaster, open to anyone or just to residents of the county in which they’re located?

Ciccocioppo: You have to sign up through the process and the system that is established for each individual site, but we do know in Pennsylvania, healthcare is not provided by county line. Healthcare is provided by region and by healthcare systems that cross many county lines.

Note: abc27 reporter Andrew Forgotch says for the new mass vaccination site in Lancaster, “there’s no residency restriction on those who sign up.”

Q: How are mass vaccination sites helpful, and how do they function differently from other providers?

Goedecker: Our thought with the mass vaccination sites is to be as efficient as possible. We want to vaccinate as many people as possible, and we know that vaccination is one of our ways to get out of this pandemic.

These mass vaccination sites help us get more vaccine to people, and so as we are able to get more vaccine from the state, then we’ll be able to vaccinate people more efficiently.

Mass vaccination sites give us a lot of parking; they give us public transportation access; they’re in very good locations for lots of people, especially for our more vulnerable populations, they can get there; and they are large, so we are able to space people out. Our vaccine sites that we have right now are also very safe, and we are very careful about spacing people out, but this just gives us additional options to vaccinate people.

Q: Is it safe to let other people help schedule your vaccine appointments? What information should or shouldn’t you share?

Ciccocioppo: I think people need to be cautious when they’re going outside of the system that’s been established by the state. The Commonwealth will not be asking you for personal information, social security numbers and that sort of information. If somebody is asking for that kind of personal information, I would definitely hesitate and avoid those situations.

Note: In an email, the Department of Health deputy press secretary states, “The Department of Health does not require vaccine providers to collect certain information when scheduling vaccine registrations. However, the providers may have their own information they need to collect for their purposes, for insurance billing, etc.”

Goedecker: We would discourage sharing your personal information, log-ins, passwords with anyone that you do not know very well and trust.

Q: How are vaccination sites verifying that individuals getting vaccinated fall into the current eligible category?

According to an email from the Department of Health deputy press secretary, “Eligibility is based on the honor system knowing that vaccinating health care workers and our most vulnerable will have the greatest impact on keeping people healthy and saving lives. “

Q: The COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t necessarily prevent individuals from passing the virus to others, so how does getting vaccinated help mitigate the spread of COVID-19?

Ciccocioppo: As more people are vaccinated, then it creates what’s called “herd immunity,” so that if you and I were both vaccinated, then we could not pass it to each other, but we might be able to pass it to somebody who’s unvaccinated, and then they would be at risk. That’s one of the reasons why mask-wearing is still important, washing hands is still important, and social distancing is still important.

Goedecker: It is one tool in our arsenal. It is a very effective tool. We know that the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccine are 94-95% effective at preventing people from getting the disease. Both them and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are 100% effective at preventing hospitalization and death. And when you think about what we really are worried about with COVID-19, it’s that we don’t want people to get really bad disease, and we don’t want people to die from it. So we know that these vaccines are very, very good at this.

We’ve been vaccinating since December. The trials for these vaccines started back in July of last year. But the data that continues to come out is that these vaccines are very safe. They are very effective. WellSpan and all of its doctors are encouraging people to get this vaccine as one step to get us out of this pandemic.

Q: On the Department of Health website, how can you tell if a vaccination site is offering vaccines for the general public or just for employees when scheduling your appointment? Are the locations differentiated in any way?

Ciccocioppo: They are currently not differentiated on the map, although we are constantly looking at how we can improve the online resources and the map. We will be making some improvements to the map even later this week to try and provide the kind of information that people are telling us that they want.

But at this point, none of the providers should still be limiting their vaccinations to employees. They should be well beyond that stage and offering appointments to the general public.

(This Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

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