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Wolf signs bill to let National Guard help with vaccine effort

Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation Wednesday that will allow the Pennsylvania National Guard to assist with the state’s effort to distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

“This bill will support the National Guard and other state agencies in the planning process for community vaccination clinics once supply of COVID-19 vaccines increases,” Wolf said in a statement. “This service will help further expedite getting vaccine to Pennsylvanians across the state.”

The legislation enables the National Guard to work with the Pennsylvania Health Department to operate regional sites to administer the COVID-19 vaccines. The bill also requires the Wolf administration to report on how the Guard is being incorporated into the vaccination distribution strategy.

Earlier Wednesday, the Wolf administration said the National Guard would assist in efforts to vaccinate teachers and school staff.

The initial round of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccines will be directed to teachers and other school employees. Wolf said the goal is to get school staff vaccinated so school districts still operating remotely can reopen their classrooms.

State Rep. Tim O’Neal, R-Washington County, authored the bill to have the Guard assist in the vaccine distribution. At a news conference with the governor to discuss plans to vaccinate teachers, O’Neal said he was glad to see the Guard getting involved with the effort. O’Neal formerly served in the Pennsylvania National Guard.

“I’ve seen the capabilities our military has to deploy millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and thousands of people across the world in a timely and efficient manner,” O’Neal said. “Our Guard is the perfect group to run this mission of vaccinating our teachers so school can reopen.”

Some lawmakers wanted the Guard to be utilized earlier in the COVID-19 vaccination effort, which has been criticized by many for moving too slowly.

Initially, Wolf opposed the bill. The governor had cited a concern that it would divert the Guard’s medical units from assisting long-term care facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks. The governor also was worried about diverting doses away from other community providers, such as hospitals and pharmacies.

The administration supported the bill after it was amended in the state House to ensure the Guard’s other duties wouldn’t be compromised.

Wolf has said the biggest challenge in the vaccination effort remains the simple fact that the demand far exceeds the available supply. But the state is starting to get more doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, and the arrival of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine represents another step to protect more people from COVID-19.

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