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Coronavirus Vaccine Comes To Allegheny Health Network

Allegheny Health Network
Keishia Sisco, an operations manager for environmental services at Allegheny Health Network, was among the first of the medical system's staff to receive the coronavirus vaccine.

All 14 hospitals in Allegheny County that were slated to receive shipments of the coronavirus vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech have gotten their deliveries--according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

The vaccine's arrival comes not a moment too soon.

Many hospitals throughout the region and county are struggling to staff facilities because so many health care workers have been exposed to, or fallen ill with, the virus. 

“By stabilizing our workforce and making sure that they’re able to come to work…it means our hospitals will be able to stay open, treat COVID patients, and importantly non-COVID patients as well,” said Dr. Brian Parker, Allegheny Health Network’s chief quality officer. 

AHN, the Pittsburgh area's second-largest medical system, began vaccinating staff on Thursday. Several UPMC facilities received the vaccine earlier this week. 

While the release of the vaccine marks the beginning of the end of the pandemic, it will be a lengthy and painful wait until everyone can be inoculated. Manufacturing takes time so the general public is unlikely to have access until late spring or early summer. 

Pfizer only sent vaccine to hospitals that have capacity to store it at the requisite -94 degrees Fahrenheit. AHN says it put roughly $250,000 towards the purchase of additional research-grade freezers.

Frontline staff who work directly with COVID-19 patients are the first at AHN to receive the vaccine—the medical system estimates that all employees who fall into this category should be vaccinated by the week of Jan. 4. Staff who work with non-COVID patients should be vaccinated by early February.

“I was there yesterday to witness the arrival of the vaccine, and the first vaccinated caregiver, and it was just amazing,” said Claire Zangerle, AHN’s chief nurse executive. "Truly we're seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, but it's not over."

The last nine months have been particularly grueling for medical workers who have shouldered a disproportionate burden during the pandemic. Not only are they overworked, but this group has been traumatized by watching countless patients, who are often afraid and in pain, die alone in hospital beds--and every time health care workers clock in, they put themselves at risk of contracting the virus.

In total, Pennsylvania hospitals have received some 110,000 doses of the vaccine--enough for less than 1% of the state's population. The Pfizer vaccine is a two-dose regimen, so another 110,000 doses are needed to fully inoculated this first group. 

The Moderna vaccine is expected to be distributed soon, increasing the number of people who can be inoculated. Moderna's vaccine also requires a booster shot.

On Thursday an important advisory panel at the Food and Drug Administration recommended that the agency grant Moderna emergency use authorization. Pfizer received FDA emergency authorization last week. 

While Pfizer and Moderna use similar technology, the latter does not have the same extreme cold storage requirements, which benefits medical facilities that lack access to these resources. 

After health care workers, elderly people residing in nursing homes and other long-term living facilities will receive the vaccine. The state's department of health says inoculation of this population is slated to start on Dec. 28, and will be done in collaboration with pharmacy staff from CVS and Walgreens.  

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.