Pittsburgh’s Veterans Affairs health care system had offered walk-in registrations and clinics aimed at vaccinating its oldest veterans before the state ordered vaccine providers to better serve older Pennsylvanians.
It administered roughly 2,000 first doses at its clinic Feb. 6. A VA spokesperson said the system will focus on administering second doses to those veterans before booking appointments for those awaiting their first shot.
Last week, Pennsylvania’s Department of Health asked providers to speed up their vaccinations and to offer appointment bookings over the phone. Many providers had previously only offered registration online.
Veterans Affairs offices had already been taking calls for vaccine appointments. Pittsburgh’s VA has been vaccinating its oldest veterans since the beginning of January, according to director Donald Koenig.
The VA health care system gets its own allocation from the federal government, separate from that which is sent to the state. Doses are distributed to facilities by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services released an additional allocation of 200,000 Moderna COVID-19 vaccine doses, increasing the number of facilities where veterans could get a shot.
If the department maintains its current pace, Koenig expects the Pittsburgh VA to have reached at least 70% of its staff and veterans by the end of May.
The VA is tasked with significantly fewer shots compared to the statewide rollout for civilians; it has also been able to do more outreach to let veterans know they can get a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Koenig.
Koenig said existing relationships with patients at the VA have been critical. “Folks have generally seen us in the last two years. So it does make it easy for us to reach out to them,” he said.
The Pittsburgh VA has also used its Facebook page and website to communicate information about the coronavirus pandemic and vaccine availability to its veterans. During its recent walk-in clinic, the VA announced via its Facebook page that it could accept veterans as young as 55-years-old due to available supply.
According to Koenig, the system also relies on veteran community groups to relay information to their veteran members. One of those groups is the Veterans Breakfast Club.
Founding director Todd DePastino says VBC typically hosts more than 70 events per year for veterans and civilians to come together and hear stories of service. After the coronavirus pandemic hit, DePastino and his staff began hosting virtual gatherings online.
But when it became clear that some veterans didn’t have access to the internet, the group began raising money to deliver iPads and hotspots to those vets so they could keep in touch. DePastino said the Veterans Breakfast Club has been able to show eight local veterans how to use the devices to help keep them in touch with the group.
“If you create a community, you’re responsible for it,” DePastino said. The Veterans Breakfast Club has applied that mission to helping connect veterans to vaccines, too.
DePastino said the group has held multiple discussions with vets about their experiences getting vaccinated and members have shared information about how to get appointments and walk-in clinics.
Veterans Breakfast Club members and staffers have called other veterans in their community who don’t join the group online. DePastino said almost all of the veterans he speaks with regularly are eager to get vaccinated.
Jim Roberts, a 74-year-old Vietnam vet, got his shot at the Pittsburgh VA’s recent walk-in clinic. He was pleased with how smooth his experience was.
“To me it was an incredible operation. If the entire nation’s campaign was going as well as that one, most of us would be vaccinated by now, I think,” Roberts said during the Zoom call.
Veterans who weren’t sure of their eligibility were able to register with the VA system in person, according to Koenig. Some received shots moments later while others were contacted once eligibility was determined.
It’s not clear when the VA’s next walk-in clinic will take place. A VA Pittsburgh spokesperson said the system will for now focus on administering the second doses of vaccine to the roughly 2,000 veterans who attended the previous clinic.VA Pittsburgh is still offering vaccines by appointment for those who need their second dose.
Veterans who already receive care at the VA can expect to be contacted by a representative when they become eligible to receive a shot. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, contact may come in the form of a call, text or email.
Koenig said veterans who don’t receive general care at a VA hospital could still qualify to get a COVID-19 vaccine through the VA. Veterans unsure of their eligibility can call the VA toll free at 877-222-8387.