Pa. acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam (Source: PA.gov)
Pa. acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam (Source: PA.gov)

Tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians will have to wait longer for their second doses of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine to compensate for mistakes in allocation made earlier this year, acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said Wednesday.

"We discovered some providers inadvertently administered the Moderna vaccine shipped to them intended as second doses, as first doses,” Beam said. “We are taking immediate action to remedy the situation and are committed to ensuring that second doses are available."

The Pfizer vaccine is not affected, she said.

Beam said between 30,000 and 60,000 appointments for second Moderna doses may need to be postponed by one to two weeks. However, she said, the delayed appointments will still fall within the allowable timeline set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention allows up to 42 days between doses.

In addition, she said, 30,000 to 55,000 first doses that providers are expecting will not be delivered.

By coupling inventory management with the planned delays in second-dose appointments, "we can minimize any disruption" to the vaccine rollout, she said.

Delaying second doses will not reduce vaccine effectiveness, Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccine expert at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said in a statement. A second shot given six weeks after the first "will surely result in the same booster response as that found during the three to four week interval," he said.

Beam's announcement represents the latest setback for a vaccine rollout that already is facing intense criticism for its relative slowness and lack of coordination. Providers and patients alike say the state has failed to do enough to ensure an orderly, predictable flow of supply.

Beam declined to name the providers that misused second doses, or to provide much detail about what happened, saying it is more important to focus on the future. She characterized the problem as a "structural issue" that began in January.

It then compounded from week to week, she said, to the point that this week, providers requested close to 200,000 second doses of the Moderna vaccine, virtually the state's entire inventory.

Beam attributed the mistake  to a "perfect storm of circumstances": eagerness on the part of providers and patients, coupled with inconsistent allocations, confusion and lack of clear communication. In response to questions, Beam said a centralized registration would not remedy the issue.

More broadly, Pennsylvania's problems stem from the ongoing scarcity of vaccine supplies from the federal government's Operation Warp Speed, she said.

Because the medication in the first and second doses is the same, Beam said there is no cause for concern for patients who received a "second dose" as a first dose, and no need for them to restart the vaccination process.

She said the plan was reviewed with the state's newly formed Covid-19 vaccine joint task force, which endorsed it.

“This second dose issue was the first major problem addressed by this task force and we have demonstrated that we are able to respond in real time and in a bipartisan manner,” said state Sen. Ryan Aument of Lancaster County, who represents the Senate Republican caucus on the task force.

“However, we recognize that much work remains to implement a highly efficient and effective statewide plan to ensure that all Pennsylvanians who want to receive the vaccine, can."

Tim Stuhldreher