'It's So Irresponsible': County Executive On Plum Borough School District, COVID-19 Restrictions

On today's program: Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald calls on residents to remain vigilant, not gather during COVID-19 surge; and psychologist Dr. Gretchen Chapman explains why, despite promising trials, the public may not immediately embrace a COVID-19 vaccine.


County Executive Rich Fitzgerald on COVID-19 restrictions, ahead of Thanksgiving
(00:00 — 10:28)

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald says his wife and eight children are opting out of the traditional Thanksgiving this year because of the rising COVID-19 cases.

"We’re gonna miss it, there’s no question," says Fitzgerald. "But we realize to stay healthy, to keep other people healthy, it’s the responsible thing to do."

The CDC put out an advisory Thursday, saying “ Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year.”

Fitzgerald says it's frustrating to see people disregard scientific evidence and advice to stay home and wear masks, despite the fact the pandemic has been raging for the last eight months and daily records of COVID cases being shattered across Pennsylvania and locally.

Halloween, Fitzgerald says, was particularly dangerous.

"The frustration is you have some people that want to say, 'Well, we’ve been so good for so long, the kids deserve to have a party.'"

Fitzgerald called out the Plum Borough School District, who’s parents organized a dance for students in neighboring Westmoreland County. Allegheny County Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen called the event a “willful disregard” of public health measures. Bogen said in a press conference last week that there have been confirmed cases from that event.

“It’s disappointing that these irresponsible parents not only went against state policy, county policy and their own school district policy,” says Fitzgerald. “They snuck across county lines and now they’re basically covering up what they’ve done.”

Fitzgerald says the county is looking at whether it can legally require parents to provide information on who attended the dance for contact tracing purposes.

As of last week, the state put out a new stay-at-home advisory to try to tamp down on rising cases. Fitzgerald says stricter mitigation, or even another shutdown, would be difficult without federal stimulus money.

"We need Congress, the House, the Senate and the administration to come together, get a package that can help people that are truly in need."

Fitzgerald says it’s clear if people wear masks and social distance, outbreaks can be prevented.

“The vast majority of folks in our region have followed those guidelines, particularly when we’re in our structured environments: we’re at work, we’re at school, people are wearing their masks,” says Fitzgerald. The real problem is parties.

"You can't regulate what people are doing in their backyards or on their porches in non-official settings,” says Fitzgerald. 

He’s optimistic a vaccine is forthcoming, saying, it could be just a few more months of restrictions. But, he adds, “One thing we learned about the virus is the virus never lets it’s guard down.”

Vaccines may soon hit the market, but officials need public trust
(10:34 — 18:00)

Biotech companies are showing very promising early results for their COVID-19 vaccines as trials come to a close. Because of this initial success, Pfzier and BioNTech submitted a request to the FDA for emergency authorization for their vaccine. Moderna is expected to also seek emergency authorization.

A vaccine could be in people's hands by early next year if they gain approval, but this presents another problem: vaccine trust.

“Survey measures of vaccine confidence are strongly correlated with vaccination behavior,” says Gretchen Chapman, a professor of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University.

Vaccine confidence, she says, has three parts: positive attitudes about the benefits or effectiveness of the vaccine; negative attitude including fears that the vaccine is not safe; and trust in the provider and the system that develops the vaccine and distributes it.

“The trust part of vaccine confidence is not what predicts vaccination behavior,” says Chapman. “It’s beliefs about the effectiveness and the safety of the vaccine that are the strong predictors.”

This could pose difficulty for distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, says Chapman, since it’s brand new. “It could be kind of reasonable to be a little bit skeptical about what the effectiveness and safety is until we have more data.”

Further complicating vaccine distribution could be a lack of health equity across different racial and ethnic communities.

“Rebuilding the system so it includes everyone is not a small task,” says Chapman. She gives hospital integration as an example: “Hospitals weren’t integrated until the 1965 Medicare legislation. Our current medical system was not built with African Americans in mind.”

But some vaccines are widely accepted, regardless of race, Chapman says. “I was looking at the CDC data on flu vaccination rates and whites and Asian Americans are a couple points ahead of Black and Latinx Americans in terms of vaccination rates, but it’s only a couple percentage points, it's not a big gap.”

A CDC analysis of flu hospitalizations and vaccinations from 2019 to 2020 says 38 percent of Latino and 41 percent of non-Hispanic Black people were vaccinated that year. Vaccination rates among Asian Americans and non-Hispanic white people are 52 and 53 percent, respectively.

“I think the main message I would give on encouraging vaccination rates is not to focus only on changing people’s beliefs and attitudes but focus also on structuring the environment to facilitate vaccination behavior directly,” says Chapman. This includes making vaccination convenient, accessible and even free.

She says that although some may still be hesitant without more evidence, the devastation of the virus itself will likely encourage people to protect themselves, and others, by getting vaccinated.

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.