Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania is not complying with a public records request filed by Spotlight PA seeking documents pertaining to expired, damaged, or otherwise non-administered COVID-19 vaccines in the commonwealth.
According to Spotlight PA, the state Department of Health denied a recent public request to uncover wasted doses. The Wolf administration is relying on a 1955 law that provides the state the power to conceal what is identified as confidential contagious disease documentation.
Last year, the state legislature passed a transparency bill, Act 77, mandating that all agencies process right-to-know public requests.
“What’s really important to note here is that the [Disease Prevention and Control Law] grants the Department of Health considerable discretion to release anything when it serves the public interest,” said Melissa Melewsky, an attorney at Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. “They are choosing not to do that. And they have never justified that in the context of a Right-to-Know denial.”
The state’s Health Department said in a statement to the organization that filed the request that only 1,589 of about 2.3 million vaccine doses delivered — 0.6 percent — have been reported by providers as wasted, as of Feb. 26. The information provided by the state does not point to which providers are responsible for the majority of wasted doses. Spotlight PA contacted the spokesman to clarify why this information has not been made available for the public, but the state declined to comment.
“This lack of transparency is not something we’re seeing at just the state level. We see it from the top-down, to the state and local levels,” Republican Kathy Barnette, who ran for a Pennsylvania House seat in 2020 against Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean, told The Federalist. “To hear that we may have cases where we are disposing of the vaccine, and the lack of transparency in allowing us to see that and hold our government accountable, it’s anathema. People should be very up in arms about it.”
In January, ProPublica released a report detailing multiple states that have failed to transparently report vaccine administration and the number of shots that got tossed out. While the Health Department told Spotlight PA that there is a 0.6 percent wasted doses reporting rate, ProPublica was told by the Wolf administration that only 0.1 percent had been wasted. ProPublica notably found that Indiana, Maryland, Washington, Michigan, Colorado, and other states have been unclear on the precise amount of wasted immunizations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mandates that all third parties that provide the vaccine must report doses “that were unused, spoiled, expired, or wasted as required by the relevant jurisdiction.” The Associated Press reported two weeks ago that state governments have not been adequately reporting the number of wasted vaccine doses.
Former Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, who was recently confirmed as President Joe Biden’s assistant secretary of health, previously cited the 1955 law to conceal how many COVID-19 tests were conducted in nursing homes. Levine notably enacted a similar policy to Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year and sent COVID-19-positive patients back to nursing homes. It was estimated shortly after that 70 percent of all fatalities in the state were because of Levine’s actions.
In 2018, Pennsylvania similarly hid records on E. coli cases that were requested publicly by a reporter at Morning Call. In 1988, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania acknowledged that the law is difficult to interpret due to its lack of use and that the law “does not weave a cloak of absolute confidentiality.”
“Most of the historical record consists of little more than a public reading of the act,” said the court. “Apparently, the discussion of the act occurred almost entirely behind ‘closed doors’ or in committee, where there was little effort to produce committee reports or create a written record.”
Several other media outlets in Pennsylvania have not been permitted to examine documents pertaining to the state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. In mid-March, the Democratic administration stopped responding to Freedom of Information Act requests.
“They have been completely autocratic from the get-go and have made absolutely awful decisions,” said Albert Eisenberg, co-founder of Broad + Liberty and a Philadelphia-based consultant, referring to the Wolf administration’s lack of clarity. “They think they are above it, from forcing nursing homes to accept COVID-positive patients, to ranking in the bottom of vaccines for seniors. As we see in New York, the other shoe is going to drop at some point on the Wolf administration.”
Spotlight PA is currently in the process of appealing the Wolf administration’s decision.