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• Additional events planned in community
• Hospital has capability for 2,500 vaccinations per week
Kane Karsteter-McKernan, administrative professional with UPMC Health Plan, and Michele Dudek, nurse coordinator for employee health at UPMC McKeesport, prepare to check in someone arriving for a COVID-19 vaccination. (Tube City Almanac photo)
Simeania Young of Braddock was in a good mood Tuesday morning after receiving her first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at UPMC McKeesport hospital.
Young, 49, said she spent last year urging her two grown children to be careful, and asking people not to visit. “I was scared to death,” she said yesterday, as she waited a mandatory 15 minutes to ensure there were no complications. “Some people are still not taking it seriously. Especially if they didn’t get sick, they didn’t think it was a big deal.”
Now that she’s on the road to vaccination? “I feel like I can plan a summer vacation this year,” Young said.
She was one of 400 people who were part of a mass vaccination event Tuesday at the Mansfield Building’s Ahmad Conference Center. They will have to return in 28 days for a second dose.
All of the people vaccinated Tuesday had previously registered on UPMC’s vaccination website, vaccine.upmc.com, and were in one of the categories in Phase 1A. No walk-ins were accepted.
Dr. Tracey Conti, who directs the family medicine residency program at UPMC McKeesport, said the event is part of a push to make sure COVID-19 vaccines are available to under-served communities. Additional vaccination events are scheduled for Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood and Hosanna House in Wilkinsburg, she said.
“It’s important that all of our communities have access to vaccination,” Conti said. “We also know that transportation is an issue in our area. A lot of people don’t want to have to leave their local communities.”
In the coming weeks, she said, UPMC will be doing further outreach to set up vaccination clinics at churches and other community gathering points. UPMC McKeesport also is working with the Healthy Community PartnerSHIPS in Braddock, Clairton, Duquesne and McKeesport to connect residents with the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We are working with our community partners to deliver vaccinations in the ways that the community wants,” Conti said.
Frances Fichtner of White Oak was among the 400 people vaccinated at UPMC McKeesport on Tuesday. Fichtner, who is 95, is also one of the people who was reluctant to travel to Pittsburgh to get her COVID-19 shot.
“I was waiting until it came here,” she said. Her great-niece, Kathy Mikulski of Cecil Twp., drove her to the appointment and also helped her register on the UPMC website.
“I was never so excited to get a shot in my life,” Fichtner said.
Like many local residents, Fichtner said some of her friends have tried repeatedly to get appointments for vaccinations, without success. “Everyone’s anxious — they’re all trying to get online,” she said. “I was on the list at Giant Eagle, but I was number 501. I figured that was a lost cause.”
Bob Reynolds, pharmacy operations manager for UPMC McKeesport, said the hospital is currently doing two vaccination clinics per week — on Mondays and Thursdays — delivering 250 shots each day.
Reynolds said the vaccine supply chain from multiple drug companies is rapidly ramping up production.
“It’s just a matter of time before Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson can produce that much vaccine,” Reynolds said, noting that the first vaccine was only approved for use in December — just three months ago.
Employees from throughout the UPMC system, and recently retired personnel, have volunteered to help administer the shots, he said.
“We could do 2,500 vaccinations per week if we had enough vaccine,” Reynolds said. “We’re manpowered up and we’re not going to stop until we’re done.”
Despite the enthusiasm evident on Tuesday, there is still lingering mistrust in the community, several people said. Young said her children and some of her friends don’t want to be vaccinated.
“I keep talking to people about it,” Young said. “They tell me, well, I’m going to wait and see what other people are doing first ...
“Personally? I’ve been trying to get an appointment for the last three weeks, going to this site and that site,” Young said. “UPMC got in touch with me and I’m grateful.”
According to public opinion polls, misinformation spread by politicians on talk shows and on Facebook, YouTube and other Internet channels has discouraged some people from getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
“We need to reassure people that (COVID-19) is not a ‘political’ disease, and this is not a ‘political’ vaccine,” Conti said. “If there are areas of mistrust, we need to have these conversations with people and dispell those rumors.”
But some people — especially in the Black community — also have a justified mistrust of doctors and scientists, Conti said.
“From slavery on, there have been cases where procedures were done to people of color without their consent,” Conti said. “We also know about the experiments that were done on people at the Tuskegee Institute. It’s important that we acknowledge that mistrust, and also assure people that these vaccines went through all of the appropriate safety protocols.”
Currently, only people in Phase 1A are being vaccinated. Phase 1A includes health-care workers, people 65 and older, residents of long-term care facilities, and people ages 16 to 64 with long-term health conditions, including cancer, kidney disease, COPD, Down syndrome, heart conditions, weakened immune system, obesity, sickle-cell disease and Type 2 diabetes. People who are pregnant or who are smokers also are included in Phase 1A.
The vaccinations are free. Conti said that anyone who wants to register for vaccination at UPMC should use the vaccine.upmc.com website, or call 1-844-876-2822.
Jason Togyer is editor of Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published March 16, 2021.