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Despite New PA Guidelines, Limited Supply Will Prevent Many Who Qualify From Getting COVID Vaccine

Sarah Boden
90.5 WESA News
Nurse Denise Fingeret administers the first dose of the Moderna vaccine to Carlow University nursing student Tyler Collins. During the spring 2021 semester Collins will do clinical rotations at several Pittsburgh-area hospitals.

Western Pennsylvania’s two largest medical systems both say that despite the state's new COVID vaccination guidelines, their ability to vaccinate patients is extremely finite.

On Tuesday, the state’s Department of Health expanded the criteria of who is eligible for vaccinations. Pennsylvanians age 65 or older and those who have certain health conditions now qualify for vaccinations. But finding those shots will be difficult.

Allegheny Health Network said it's only vaccinating recent cancer patients who are age 75 or older.

“The vaccine supply is very limited,” said AHN chief medical officer Dr. Don Whiting. “We started with people who are most at risk and worked our way through [to people less at risk.]”

There are some reports of AHN vaccinating people who do not fit the criterion. Whiting said that might be due to people accessing a registration portal that should only be used by medical providers who qualify for vaccinations. Vaccination providers like AHN and UPMC are required to reserve at least 10% of their allotment for health care providers not on their payrolls.

After cancer patients who age 75 or older, Whiting said it is possible the next patient group AHN will vaccinate are cancer patients who are 65-74. He emphasized it is important that vaccinations first go to people who are most medically fragile and therefore at risk for adverse health outcomes due to a COVID-19 infection.  

Even though AHN's distribution of vaccinations to patients is limited, it goes beyond what's recommended by the Allegheny County Health Department. The department wants vaccine providers to continue to focus efforts on health care workers and long-term care facilities. 

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Allegheny General Hospital on Pittsburgh's North Side.

"The supply of vaccine coming into the county to all providers ... is still extremely limited and unknown from week to week," said health department director Dr. Debra Bogen in a Tuesday press release.

Whiting said if supply weren't an issue, AHN could administer 20,000 COVID vaccinations a week —something that could be increased if needed.

“We just need the supply. If we can get the supply to the region, we can get it out fast.”

Unlike AHN, UPMC has not started vaccinating any patients outside of its long-term care facilities. 

“We will update our patients and communities when vaccine becomes available,” said an email statement from UPMC. “We have not yet received an additional allotment of vaccine beyond what has been allocated for health care workers and skilled nursing facility residents and staff.”

Though UPMC said it is unable to vaccinate patients at this time, the state’s largest non-governmental employer has been vaccinating employees who do not work in its medical facilities—some of whom has been working from home since the start of the pandemic. Residents at some of UPMC’s senior living communities are still waiting for their first COVID shots.

When asked if AHN was also vaccinating employees who work from home, Whiting said that most of the medical system's staff, including those non-patient facing roles, work within hospitals. 

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. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.