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County Executive Fitzgerald Reflects On A Year With Pandemic 'Front And Center'

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald says the county's health department and many health care networks have been a big support in the pandemic, not only to residents, but also surrounding areas that lack the same medical resources.

On today's program: Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald reflects on how prepared the county was for the COVID-19 pandemic when it hit Pennsylvania a year ago; and Casa San Jose’s health care navigator explains how the system for getting a COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t accommodate non-English speakers.

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald looks back
(0:00 — 12:22) 

Since March 14, 2020, more than 78,000 Allegheny County residents have contracted COVID-19, with more than 5,100 hospitalizations and 1,700 deaths.

And then there is the economic toll the pandemic has taken: thousands of lost jobs and an unemployment rate that hit a peak in April at 15.7%.

“The pandemic became front and center for everyone,” says Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Looking back, he says the county was poised to respond to impacts, as the seat of a few major health care networks. 

“It really has been a focus on how do we keep people safe? How do we try to have people operate normally if they’re given the good recommendations about wearing masks, social distancing, hand sanitizing, all the things we’ve come to learn over this last year?”

More than establishing precautions however, Fitzgerald says the county had to address a confused public.

“Even out of our institutions like the CDC and the NIH and the federal government, there were mixed messages,” says Fitzgerald, referencing former President Donald Trump’s repeated false claims about the coronavirus.

Fitzgerald says now, the county is looking forward to acquiring and distributing more COVID-19 vaccines. 

“The county health department typically receives about 10 percent of the doses that come into Allegheny County,” explains Fitzgerald. “If there’s 300,000 doses that have been put into arms, my guess is that the county health department has injected about a tenth of that.” 

Language barriers to COVID-19 vaccinations
(12:27 — 18:00) 

Pennsylvanians who qualify and want a COVID-19 vaccine are having a hard time navigating the system of pharmacies, county health offices and health care providers, but those who don’t speak or read in English are at an even greater disadvantage. 

“Health care providers, they don’t have information in Spanish or for Spanish speakers,” says Claudio Sanchez, a health care navigator with the non-profit Casa San Jose. “I feel the whole process has been built for English speakers.”

Casa San Jose supports Latinx immigrants in the Pittsburgh area, and this has recently included helping eligible residents get vaccinated. Sanchez says it’s not just the language barrier that poses an issue.

“To navigate and use technology is also a big barrier for people who are Spanish speakers, plus [those aged] 65 and older,” says Sanchez. Her job has been to coordinate volunteers to sign people up for vaccines, help them get transportation, if needed, and provide translation at the vaccination site.

Sanchez says some Spanish speakers are hesitant to even sign up for a vaccine because, “they haven’t been able to hear firsthand in Spanish how it actually works.” 

The pandemic, Sanchez says, has helped Casa San Jose get a sense of how adaptable health care systems are in providing language accessibility. 

“We’re hoping they do improve by having other languages in their portals and we do hope they listen to these needs,” says Sanchez.

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.


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