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Pittsburg Allegheny County’s Top Doc Defends Vaccine Distribution

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January 13, 2021

Responding to widespread perceptions that vaccines are lying unused, Allegheny County Health Department [ACHD] Secretary Dr. Debra Bogen said Wednesday that more vaccine doses are being administered locally than have been counted.

“I know one of the concerns is that according to the state, only about 30,000 doses have been administered in the county, but this is certainly a significant underestimate,” Bogen said. “There have been some challenges in uploading data to the state immunization information system, which we are working on with the state to address.”

About 115,000 vaccine doses have been distributed to Allegheny County, Bogen said. In the county, 32,187 partial doses and 4,993 full doses of the vaccine have been administered, according to the state’s online vaccine dashboard. ACHD administered 2,266 of these doses itself.

Bogen said one of the challenges in rolling out the vaccine is that the county gets no more than a week’s notice of how many vaccine doses will be coming its way.

“Knowing when more vaccine is coming down the pike would be helpful,” Bogen said. “And I know that’s a challenge both at the federal level and the state level, but certainly… when we have that information, and we have some knowledge of what’s coming in three, four, five, ten weeks, that would be helpful, but it’s not available at this time.”

ACHD confirmed 670 new COVID-19 cases and 74 new deaths from the virus Wednesday.

The new cases, from tests dated Nov. 15 to Jan. 12, came from individuals seven months old to 95 years old, with a median age of 39.

The deaths, from Dec. 4 to Jan. 8, involved five people in their 50s, seven people in their 60s, 15 people in their 70s, 25 people in their 80s, 20 people in their 90s and two people older than 100. ACHD associates 49 of these deaths with long-term care facilities.

To date, ACHD has reported 62,439 COVID-19 cases, 1,178 deaths from the virus and 3,711 past and present hospitalizations.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health confirmed 7,960 new COVID-19 cases and 349 new deaths from the virus Wednesday, bringing the new statewide totals to 741,389 cases and 18,429 deaths.

So far, 342,588 vaccine doses have been administered in Pennsylvania. 42,634 people have received both doses necessary to be fully vaccinated.

Healthcare workers account for approximately 2.8% of the state’s total cases. Nursing and personal care home residents and staff represent about 9.3% of the state’s total cases and 53% of the state’s total deaths.

Following the year-end expiration of the Regional Response Health Collaborative [RRHC] program, a federally-funded program that aided long-term care facilities, Pennsylvania will have to scale back assistance due to the newfound lack of federal funds. .

“The Wolf administration is committed to support long-term care facilities as much as we’re able, but we cannot do that in a more comprehensive way without further support from the federal government,” said Department of Human Services [DHS] Secretary Teresa Miller during a press briefing Wednesday.

Lack of support from the federal government means there will be a decrease in the “duration” and “volume” of support, according to DHS Special Advisor Keira Klinepeter.

For example, in the event that a facility could call in crisis support for about two weeks when needed. Now, this support will only be available for about three to five days, with some wiggle room for “specific circumstances,” according to Klinepeter.

“A more limited program was not our preferred outcome,” Miller said. “We’ve spoken openly many times about our need for continued federal support.”

Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday encouraged all Pennsylvanians to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“The COVID-19 vaccines are really an important tool in our fight against COVID-19, but they’re only going to be effective if Pennsylvanians actually get vaccinated,” Wolf said in a Tuesday press briefing. “And we should get vaccinated, because these vaccines are both safe and they’re highly effective.”

Wolf’s comments come as misinformation spreads around the country about the vaccine, such as the false claim that it can give you the virus or that it doesn’t work. He pointed those concerned about the vaccine to the websites of the Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If you hear a rumor about COVID-19 from a friend or see something online that concerns you, take a few minutes to verify the information before you get too worried about it,” Wolf said.

Wolf said he will not receive the vaccine before vulnerable groups given early access to the vaccine such as healthcare workers and nursing home residents.

“But when it’s my turn, I’m gonna get vaccinated, and I look forward to that day,” Wolf said. “I’m going to encourage my family members, and I’m going to encourage everybody in Pennsylvania to do the same thing.”

Wolf reiterated facts about the vaccine, reminding Pennsylvanians that there’s no evidence of it being dangerous and that the two vaccine options are 94% and 95% effective against COVID-19.

Dr. Cynthia Chuang of the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center joined Wolf at the briefing and said the vaccine is incredibly effective when compared to other vaccines. Flu vaccines, she said, tend to be 40% to 60% effective.

She warned that individuals may experience mild symptoms after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination. She estimated that about 80% who get vaccinated will experience soreness in the arm they receive the shot and about 50% will get other mild symptoms such as drowsiness or headaches.

“I can’t wait to see [my patients] be offered the vaccine. I have conversations with my patients on a daily basis. They can’t wait,” Chuang said. “They are anxious, they are asking me very good questions about the vaccine, and they are looking forward to getting it and I’m looking forward to them receiving it.”

Through Monday, Jan. 11, at least 311,477 vaccine doses have been administered in the state. This does not include the doses administered by CVS at skilled nursing facilities through the federal government, as DOH does not yet have access to that data.

The federal government has thus far distributed 827,300 doses of vaccines to Pennsylvania. Nearly 138,000 new doses will arrive throughout this week, DOH Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said in a Monday press briefing.

Levine said that the department hopes to roll out a “robust” communications plan about the virus that dovetails with a new federal communications strategy led by president-elect Joe Biden’s administration.

‘I think it will be very important for the federal government to have a national communications strategy that emphasizes the safety and the effectiveness of the vaccines,” Levine said.

Reports of wasted vaccine doses have arisen around the country. Levine said she has not heard of this happening in Pennsylvania and stressed that she wants this to always be avoided.

“We don’t want any vaccine wasted,” Levine said. “If they’re going to vaccinate someone in [Phase] 1b as opposed to wasting it, that’s absolutely fine. We want to make sure, at the end of the day, that we get vaccine into arms.”

She warned that it will take several months until every Pennsylvanian has access to the vaccine.

“We know that there is significant interest among all Pennsylvanians about when they will be vaccinated,” Levine said. “We are working to ensure that everyone who wants access to a COVID-19 vaccine will be able to get it.”

DOH has 258 case investigators who reach out to individuals who tested positive younger than 19 and older than 64 to investigate contacts, according to a Tuesday press release. For everyone else who tests positive, DOH sends an online form to complete. DOH uses voicemail, physical letters and text messaging in seeking return phone calls.

DOH successfully started a case investigation, a preliminary step before contact tracing begins, concerning 11% of the 51,669 COVID-19 cases from Dec. 27 to Jan. 2 within 24 hours. Additionally, DOH successfully started investigations for another 4% within 48 hours.

During that same time period, DOH had 1,528 contact tracers. They reached 5,862 contacts.

Still, few people who test positive answer questions by phone from case investigators about what sorts of businesses they may have visited. In addition to supplying the state with data about business visits in relation to the transmission of the virus, case investigations serve as the first step for contact tracing.

The statewide percent positivity rate for COVID-19 tests in Pennsylvania dropped .6% last week, though last week’s caseload represented an approximate 1,000 case increase from the previous week.

The positivity rate has been steadily dropping in recent weeks. New weekly caseloads were also decreasing until last week — Jan. 1 to Jan. 7 — a period for which the state confirmed 42,322 new cases. This small increase may be because of limited testing due to the holidays during the week of Dec. 25 to Dec. 31.

During Jan. 1 to Jan. 7, Pennsylvania confirmed 5,128 new COVID-19 cases among individuals ages 5-18, which represents about 8.8% of the total cases among this demographic in Pennsylvania.

The Department of Health announced Friday that Pennsylvania is above the national average for its testing rate, according to a White House Task Force Weekly report. Pennsylvania was at the yellow level, performing between 2,000 to 2,999 tests per 100,000 people for the previous week, the report showed.

Director of Testing and Contact Tracing Michael Huff reported that as of Jan. 8, the department collected results from 8,466,597 COVID-19 PCR and antigen tests statewide. Over the past 30 days, the department reported a total of nearly 69,629 tests each day on average.

“We want Pennsylvanians to know that if they need a test, one is available,” Levine said. “This week, we have added five free testing sites and will continue to expand testing opportunities across the state weekly.”

Levine reported Jan. 7 that a confirmed COVID-19 variant case was found in Dauphin County. This COVID-19 variant was first discovered in the UK in December. The individual, who tested positive after known international exposure and a case investigation, had mild symptoms. Contact tracing was conducted to identify other people who came in close contact with the positive case.

“Pennsylvania has been preparing for this variant by working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] and has been sending 10 to 35 random samples biweekly to the CDC since November to study sequencing and detect any potential cases for this new COVID-19 variant,” Levine said.

According to the CDC, coronaviruses can mutate regularly because mutations among viruses are common. The CDC expects that all currently available diagnostic tests will detect the variant as COVID-19 and that vaccines with federal Emergency Use Authorizations will be effective against this variant as well.

Levine said public health experts are working to study the virus and understand how this new variant spreads and affects those who are infected.

“There is still much to learn about this new variant, so we need to remain vigilant and continue to urge Pennsylvanians to stop the spread by washing their hands, practicing social distancing, avoiding gatherings, downloading COVID Alert PA and answering the call. Stay calm, stay alert and stay safe,” Levine said.

County-specific information and a statewide map are available on the COVID-19 Data Dashboard.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health and Department of Education on Thursday provided school administrators and school boards with updated recommendations on instructional models they should consider using based on the changing levels of community transmission of COVID-19 in their counties. Starting January 25, the departments will provide a second recommendation for elementary schools in counties with substantial levels of transmission. In addition to remote learning, now there is an option for blended/hybrid learning for elementary students. Acting Secretary of Education Noe Ortega said that these recommendations are not a mandate, but rather a suggestion to school districts as to how they should conduct in-person instruction.

“We know that school leaders continue to be the ones in the best position to make decisions about in-person instruction. So, we want to emphasize that while these are not mandatory; it is up to school leaders to make a decision on whether or not local factors permit them to return elementary students to in-person instruction. If it’s feasible within the context and conditions of the county and community, all pre-K to 12 schools should continue to have strategies in place that limit the number of people in classrooms and limit the number of people in learning spaces, including teachers and students,” Ortega said at a press conference Thursday.

Levine emphasized the increased importance of preventative measures such as masks and social distancing to be used during in-person learning under these new recommendations.

“The research on offering in-person instruction during COVID-19 continues to emerge,” Levine said. “While it is impossible to eliminate the risk of disease transmission entirely within a school setting where community spread is present, recent studies have shown that when mitigation efforts such as universal masking, physical distancing and hand hygiene are followed, it may be safer for younger children, particularly elementary-grade students, to return to in-person instruction.”

These updated recommendations are intended to help schools begin the process of safely returning as many students as possible to in-person instruction during the 2020-21 academic year.

“The commitment our educational leaders have shown towards mitigation efforts is noteworthy and helps us support returning many of our youngest and most vulnerable students to some level of in-person instruction,” Ortega said. “We must remember that a safe return to in-person instruction will look different across every school and county depending on a variety of local factors.”

This article was reported by Annie Siebert, Lauren Davidson, Matt Petras and Punya Bhasin.


This article was produced by PublicSource.org, a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. PublicSource tells stories for a better Pittsburgh. Sign up for their free email newsletters at publicsource.org/newsletters.

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