With the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in recent weeks, area residents have voiced their concern over the slow distribution and lack of supply.
By Jamie Wiggan
Nearly two months after the FDA gave fast track approval to the first COVID-19 vaccine for use among the American public, locals are concerned by its slow distribution.
“This whole vaccine rollout in Pennsylvania is abysmal,” said Lisa Smarra, a Kennedy resident who spent weeks attempting to arrange vaccinations for her elderly mother and health-compromised sister. “I feel like we’re not protecting our elderly population.”
Currently, Pennsylvania’s health department allows anyone over 65, or anyone 16 and above suffering from one of many qualifying health conditions, to attempt to register for a vaccine with pharmacists and health care providers.
Current supply limitations and complicated referral processes have many in those categories left waiting indefinitely.
Smarra said she spent two weeks relentlessly refreshing online registration pages trying unsuccessfully to schedule vaccines for her mother and sister.
Fortunately, a niece employed by a mail-order pharmaceutical company was allocated a small number of vaccines to cover family members, and offered up one to Smarra’s mother. But she’s still awaiting a breakthrough for her sister.
“I have gotten absolutely zero response from the pharmacies,” she said.
While the federal government reports having distributed nearly 50 million vaccines to state governments and health agencies, just more than half of those have so far made it into human arms.
Vaccination levels vary significantly by state, with Pennsylvania falling behind several neighbors — including New York, New Jersey and West Virginia — and roughly keeping pace with Maryland and Ohio, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Both federally approved vaccines — those by Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna — require two separate doses over a period of weeks. So far in Allegheny County, only about 20,000 have received both doses, while around 50,000 have received a single jab — about 4% of the total population.
Terri Clark, executive director of the Sto-Rox Family Health Center, said the clinic is working to get vaccines to those who need them as swiftly as possible but is restricted by the speed of the supply lines.
“As a health center, we have a very limited supply. As we receive vaccines we are supplying them on a case by case basis,” she said. “The demand on each level exceeds the supply.”
Clark said the center received a small supply of the Moderna vaccine during the week beginning Jan. 14 but said it was unclear at what pace additional stocks would arrive.
“Our goal is to respond to as many residents in our community as we can,” she said.
The supply line shortage is not, however, the only obstacle slowing public access to the vaccine, according to Coraopolis resident Charlene Mishizen, who received her first dose from Rite Aid in McKees Rocks on Jan. 27.
Over 65 and a two-time cancer survivor with high blood pressure, Mishizen tried for weeks to schedule an injection without success using links provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Health website.
As an assistant pharmacist with Rite Aid, she struck lucky, however, when the McKees Rocks location received its first batch of 20 Moderna vaccines, which included one spare dose. Recognizing her vulnerability, the pharmacy staff placed her on the shortlist.
“I happened to be there and wanted one, and they put me on their list at work,” she said. “It was very fortunate, I’m very blessed.”
Mishizen knows from working at the pharmacy many are less fortunate. She said she receives calls every day from customers frustrated by the referral process.
They tell her they want to schedule an appointment but she has to refer them to the pharmacy website, where customers can only enter their information in hope of being scheduled at an unknown future time.
“You can’t just call somebody and get a vaccination,'' she said. “They’re mad … they’re agitated.”
Like Smarra, Mishizen said she’s particularly concerned for older members of the community.
“I worry about these elderly people who have diabetes and heart conditions,” Mishizen said. “They do not have the technology and the knowledge to register.”
Recognizing this information gap, Clark said the health center is currently developing a more direct way to refer community members for vaccinations that will take effect when its supply stream widens out.
“We’re working locally here at the health center to make sure we establish a process that’s clear for residents for how they can be added to the list,” she said.