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First COVID-19 Vaccines Rolled Out In Pittsburgh

Five UPMC employees were the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Pittsburgh Monday. UPMC received its first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine at 9:15 a.m. at Children’s Hospital in Lawrenceville. The first shipment contained 975 doses; the state of Pennsylvania is slated to receive 100 shipments, equaling 97,500 doses total.

The five workers who got vaccinated in a live-streamed event represented different sectors of the health system’s workforce:

  • Charmaine Pykosh, 67, advanced nurse practitioner, UPMC Presbyterian
  • Sylvia Owusu-Ansah, 42, emergency department physician, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh
  • Christian Schott, 36, ICU nurse, UPMC Passavant
  • Ja’Ray Gamble, 29, transporter, UPMC Mercy
  • Manevone Philavong, 46, environmental services, UPMC Passavant

Charmaine Pykosh, a nurse practitioner at UPMC Presbyterian, was the first of the five to receive the vaccine. She said her department colleagues at UPMC Presbyterian elected her to get the vaccine first.
“They all wanted to be first, but they voted for me to go first,” she said. Pykosh said she was nervous last night but relaxed when she saw Tami Minnier, UPMC’s chief quality officer who administered the vaccines.

Dr. Sylvia Owusu-Ansah, an emergency medicine physician at Children’s Hospital and assistant director of Pittsburgh’s EMS, was also vaccinated Monday. She said it was important to her to get vaccinated as an example to her community, noting the Black community has been hit hard by the virus.

“When I was first asked to do this, I was extremely excited,” she said. “I wanted to share with my community that it is OK. This vaccine is the thing to do to keep us safe, to keep us healthy and to keep us alive.”

Owusu-Ansah said she also wanted to protect her two young daughters, her husband, and her parents in Boston.

The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses before recipients can expect to see optimized protection. Patients who completed the two-dose regime saw a 95% efficacy rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Minnier said all five recipients would receive the second dose in 21 days. UPMC expects to receive a shipment containing the second Pfizer dose in the next two weeks.

UPMC said it will first prioritize employees who come in contact with COVID-19 patients and those with underlying health concerns. Dr. Graham Snyder, UPMC's medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology, said Monday he’s hopeful that all employees will have access to the vaccine in the next month.

UPMC has said it will not mandate its employees get the Pfizer vaccine, unlike its flu vaccination policy. But, Snyder said Monday that many workers are eager to get vaccinated.

A spokesperson for the Allegheny Health Network said the system expects to receive its first shipment in the next several days and will provide details about its prioritizations at that time.

An Allegheny County spokesperson said the county health department will not receive vaccine doses in the first phase of allotments. Instead vaccines will go directly to hospitals.

Despite this “tremendously exciting” moment, the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health warned at a Monday morning press conference that the state still faces a very challenging winter.

“It will still be months before manufacturers produce enough vaccines to immunize the general public,” said Dr Rachel Levine. “It might be spring into summer before we have enough vaccines received from the pharmaceutical companies to immunize the general public.”

Health care workers are the first to receive the vaccination. This is due to their high risk of exposure and because of severe staffing shortages in medical facilities, which are the result of the surging spread of the virus. Within a couple weeks vulnerable seniors at long-term care facilities will also start receiving the vaccine, with Walgreens and CVS expected to help with administration.

Essential workers, including first responders, are the third group who will receive vaccinations. Levine said it has not been determined when she, the governor and their staffs would be vaccinated.

The state health department says more than 80 hospitals will receive direct shipments of the vaccine from Pfizer this week. This excludes Philadelphia; due to its size, the city has its own vaccine plan and funding. A spokesman from the Philadelphia Department of Health said 13,650 doses would be distributed among all of the city’s hospitals by the end of the week.

Pennsylvania has yet to release how much vaccine would be sent to individual hospitals or counties.

Hospitals that do receive the vaccine are those that have ultra-cold storage capability, as Pfizer’s must be kept at negative 94 degrees Fahrenheit. Levine says that facilities getting vaccine shipments are also able to administer the inoculation “in a pretty short period of time.” Once thawed, the vaccine must be injected within five days.

Federal regulators are expected to approve the Moderna vaccine in the coming days, meaning that as soon as next week Pennsylvania, could be administering two coronavirus vaccines.

“It’s too early to know exactly how much [vaccine] we’re going to be getting [next week],” said Levine.

Like Pfizer, Moderna’s vaccine is a two-shot regimen. But Moderna does not have such extreme cold chain requirements, which is a benefit to facilities and areas that might lack research-grade freezers.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.
Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.