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Not enough vaccine to go around, top Western Pa. doctors warn – TribLIVE

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Jan 21, 2021

Top medical leaders in Western Pennsylvania warned Wednesday there is no adequate vaccine supply to meet demand prompted by expanded eligibility in the state, according to a strongly worded letter from the group.

Leaders issued the letter in response to the state’s push to get more vaccines into arms, including people 65 and older and those with certain health conditions.

“We agree the groups identified are key for limiting covid-19 spread and harm,” read the letter, signed by 11 medical officers representing UPMC, Allegheny Health Network, Excela and others. “However, we simply do not have adequate vaccine supplies or clear notification of when and how much is coming to be able to meet this new, much larger group who can benefit.”

Pennsylvania Department of Health officials announced Tuesday that anyone 65 or older and those 16 to 64 with some pre-existing conditions are eligible for the vaccine now, in so-called Phase 1A. About 3.5 million Pennsylvanians fall in that category. The move was meant to bring the state’s vaccination plan in line with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The announcement from the state sent scores of people who fall into the expanded 1A category rushing to vaccination clinics, believing the updated state plan meant they could show up and receive a shot.

For example, Tom Chakurda, a spokesman for Excela Health in Westmoreland County, said Excela saw a significant rush of people inquiring about when they could come get their vaccination.

“It was significant enough that we had to change the verbiage on our website and Facebook,” he said, noting that as one of the reasons its chief medical officer, Dr. Carol Fox, was on board with the letter.

“While the state has just announced that individuals ages 65 and over or those those with a condition that puts them at risk for severe disease can now be immunized, our present supply of vaccine does not allow us to inoculate this group at this time,” leaders wrote online.

Vaccine providers — mostly, at this point, health care systems and some pharmacies — simply do not have the vaccine supply to meet the demand for it.

“Unless (the expanded eligibility) is accompanied by dramatic changes in the amount of vaccine not only physically here, but physically coming, we won’t be able to meet that need,” said Dr. Donald Yealy, senior medical director at UPMC and chairman of its department of emergency medicine.

“My advice would be instead of thinking about hours to days based on yesterday’s announcement, be thinking about in the next few weeks or more about getting scheduled,” he said.

Yealy signed on to the letter for UPMC, and he is one of the 11 leaders of health systems in the region that are part of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Chief Medical Officers Consortium. The group formed in the early stages of the pandemic to try to address issues in a coordinated and transparent way.

The health systems represented in the consortium are Allegheny Health Network, UPMC, Excela Health System, Butler Health System, Heritage Valley Health System, St. Clair Hospital, Washington Health System, the Pittsburgh VA Health System, Conemaugh Health System, Penn Highlands Healthcare and Indiana Regional Medical Center.

“By extending who fits into whatever category like they did, it made people feel that, ‘OK, now it’s my turn, I want to get lined up quick, too,’ but in fact, we’re still working through … the health care professionals,” said Dr. Don Whiting, chief medical officer for Allegheny Health Network.

He said there is a misconception that providers are “sitting on a bunch of vaccine” and holding it back for some reason.

Numbers from the state Department of Health, he said, can give that impression falsely for a number of reasons, from a lag in reporting and uploading the data to the fact that it does not account for scheduled vaccinations.

State data show about 37,100 people are partially vaccinated in Allegheny County and 8,700 are fully vaccinated. Data for Westmoreland County show 9,101 people are partially vaccinated and 152 are fully vaccinated.

“Every drop we have is scheduled to be given over the next week and a half to two weeks,” Whiting said. “We have no more left to schedule for.”

Yealy said the memo wasn’t an indictment of state health officials who made the call to widen the first phase group to fall in line with federal guidance.

“It’s not meant to be critical of the commonwealth, but to say, ‘Here are the real steps that we can serve,’ ” he said.

Rather, the letter was meant to reinforce to the public that vaccination won’t be instantaneous.

“It’s so the public understands that being in that group doesn’t mean that everyone can be vaccinated right away,” Yealy said. “There still needs to be prioritization and time. We want to vaccinate, and we will not let vaccine go to waste — we will efficiently get it into arms, but it has to arrive here first.”

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, mguza@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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