Despite Expanding Eligibility, COVID-19 Vaccines Aren't Easy To Acquire


On today's program: WESA health reporter Sarah Boden breaks down some of the roadblocks to vaccinating more people, even those who are eligible; a Pittsburgh doctor makes the case for why vaccination trials should include pregnant people; and the latest results of the region’s bird count, which found one of the highest levels of species diversity. 

Healthcare workers and those 65+ are eligible but vaccine doses remain limited
(0:00 — 6:09) 

COVID-19 vaccines have been available for weeks since FDA approval, but for those who aren’t frontline healthcare workers, the confusion is mounting. 

The process of vaccine distribution is patchwork of government authorities and health care systems.

As of last week, the state health department added those 65 and older, and those with certain conditions like cancer, pregnancy and sickle cell disease to the list of people eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. 

WESA health reporter Sarah Boden reports that although the list is longer, more people are not receiving the COVID-19 vaccine for various reasons.

“In some parts of the country, there is a shortage of people to administer the vaccine,” says Boden. “At least locally, the director of Allegheny County’s health department, along with the county’s health care systems all say that the hold up is a lack of vaccine doses.”

Allegheny County made time slots available for vaccinations at a site in Monroeville for this week, but reservations ran out in an hour

“On the one hand it’s frustrating because people who desperately need the vaccine and who have been waiting a very long time have to wait longer, even though, technically, they’re eligible to get the vaccine,” says Boden. “But also, to me, it signals that vaccine hesitancy perhaps is lower in our county.”

The state does not have a centralized scheduling system, but has put a map on it’s website to show distributors of the vaccine. Green dots show places with doses, red dots mean a location is out, but Boden says the map omits one important piece of information.

“That map doesn't say whether or not they’re vaccinating the general public,” says Boden. “For example, some Giant Eagle pharmacies have received vaccine, but it’s my understanding they’re not really vaccinating the general public right now. They’re using that vaccine to focus on long term care facilities and in some cases, healthcare workers.”

For everyone else now eligible for a coronavirus vaccine, Boden says doses will likely go to those who have the means and the time to navigate the patchwork system in the first place.

Pregnant people have historically been excluded from vaccine trials, but one Pittsburgh doctor says that should change
(6:11 — 12:21)

The state health department authorized pregnant people to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, but it’s effects on those hasn’t been studied. In fact, pregnant people have often been excluded from vaccine trials out of concern for safety. 

Dr. Richard Beigi, president of UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital says this exclusion has perpetuated a lack of research on the safety and efficacy of other vaccines among pregnant people. He suggests research adopt an inclusionary approach to pregnant women instead

Beigi argues not allowing pregnant women to participate in vaccine trials, or not allowing women who become pregnant to stay in the trial “perpetuates a cycle of exclusion and evidence gaps.”

“The approach of outright exclusion creates a situation where you never have the data that you wanted at the outset like you do for other populations,” says Beigi. “Because of that, some providers and some women indeed are less likely or less inclined to take the vaccine, so then that also perpetuates less use and also less data to be gathered in that manner. It’s kind of a Catch-22.”

Beigi says pregnant people are using these vaccines, but it would be best for them if this data already existed. 

The risk of acquiring COVID-19 while pregnant is not higher than for other populations, but Beigi says pregnant people who become symptomatic with coronavirus seem to be at risk of experiencing a severe case.

As an obstetrician himself, Beigi says he recommends pregnant people get the vaccine, if they are open to it. 

“I believe it’s safe and I think it’s highly effective.”

Annual bird count reveals more species diversity than usual
(12:24 — 18:00)

Every holiday season, Western Pennsylvania bird enthusiasts venture out for the yearly bird count. 

The Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania still conducted it’s count this year, with some modifications. 

Brian Shema, the organization’s operations director, says this year’s count revealed more species than in years past. This trend has been consistent over the years. 

“During the count, we found 78 species of birds for a total of 24,522 individuals,” says Shema. “About a decade ago, we had about a 68 or 69 bird species average.” 

This year, volunteers saw the second highest number of species in the history of the count. 

Shema says some species are being found more regularly in Pittsburgh during the winter, like turkey vultures, northern ravens, fish crows, and eastern towhees. He says, this is natural given the trends of climate change. 

Another possibility for the species diversity is availability of food and resources in certain forests is driving them to the area. 

“Many of these bird’s ranges are expanding. Where they would normally have wintered south of Pennsylvania, they’re now being found right here in Pittsburgh during the winter.”

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.