Pa. dentists, pharmacists and others confused about how to get COVID-19 vaccine

“It looks like we’re going to have to do a lot of the work ourselves"

  • Kiley Koscinski/WESA

(Pittsburgh) — Many Pennsylvania dentists, pharmacists, midwives, translators and others who work directly with patients in health care settings are still waiting to get their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Last week, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine signed an order directing hospitals to designate 10% of their COVID-19 vaccine shipment for non-hospital workers.

But many frontline workers not associated with a hospital system are confused about how to schedule an appointment to get vaccinated. Michelle Baird, a Cranberry Township dentist, started with a state-issued list of COVID-19 vaccine providers.

“I would Google [search] the hospital and whatever phone number came up I would call that number. Often the person that answered wouldn’t have any idea what to do with me,” said Baird.

After days of cold-calling hospital receptionists, another dentist in Baird’s office connected to Butler Memorial Hospital and scheduled appointments for their entire practice.

Brittany Radomski, a traveling pharmacist, has been combing through government websites and local hospital pages for weeks wondering where to start.

“It looks like we’re going to have to do a lot of the work ourselves,” she said. “I have been reaching out to friends, contacts from school, just putting out general inquiries on Facebook.”

Radomski declined to name the pharmacy she works for, but did disclose she is not employed by Walgreens or CVS. Those two chains have partnered with the federal government to administer vaccines to long-term care facilities.

Frontline health care workers eligible to get vaccinated also include emergency medical service workers, technicians, phlebotomists, students and trainees and facilities management workers like security, maintenance and cleaners. The state designates the group as people, “Not directly involved in patient care but potentially exposed to infectious agents that can be transmitted among from health care personnel and patients.”

These workers might spend their days in hospitals, but are employed by other agencies or organizations.

Ann McCarthy, clinical director of the Midwife Center for Birth and Women’s Health in Pittsburgh, said many non-hospital workers have been relying on friends and contacts who work at hospitals to help them get vaccinated.

“It’s sort of a reflection of health care in the United States … access is difficult,” she said. ”Those that have more privilege get more access.”

Other workers aren’t entirely clear where they fall in the state’s phased approach to vaccination.

Nick Miller is an American Sign Language interpreter. He often accompanies patients who are deaf or hearing impaired to appointments and procedures at hospitals, but is contracted by an interpreting agency.

“We are stuck in a gray area, being essential for communication access and literally right there with the patients and doctors, but [we] have no advocacy when it comes to looking out for us in times such as this,” he said.

A sign marks the waiting area for people who received a COVID-19 vaccine. The 15-minute waiting period is a precaution because some people who received initial doses of the vaccine developed allergic reactions.

Katie Blackley / WESA

A sign marks the waiting area for people who received a COVID-19 vaccine. The 15-minute waiting period is a precaution because some people who received initial doses of the vaccine developed allergic reactions.

A Pennsylvania Health Department spokesperson said interpreters and other patient advocates are included in the state’s Phase 1A category.

An Allegheny County spokesperson pointed to a website where non-hospital workers can register for an appointment at a County-operated clinic. The website requests applicants to create an account on behalf of their organization. But some freelancers, like Miller, would have to create an account for himself.

Radomski is a traveling pharmacist without a specific home base, she said. When creating an account with the County, she wasn’t sure if she should include other traveling pharmacists or wait for her employer to create an account for her. Ultimately she made an account for herself.

After creating an account, users can fill out a request for an appointment. Then they must wait to hear back from the County about an available appointment. But the wait can be agonizing, said Radomski.

Wait times for an appointment at a County clinic are unclear, but a spokesperson said this week the County was already working with at least 700 organizations. Radomski wondered if her pharmacy will become a vaccine distributor before the County reaches her.

“For all I know, in two or three weeks I could find out that we’re getting the vaccine and we’ll do clinics in our stores,” she said.

State Health Secretary Levine had encouraged hospitals to include non-affiliated workers since December, but hadn’t ordered them to do so until Dec. 30.

“It’s very important that [hospitals] continue to vaccinate health care workers facing the same risks in their own workplace, such as EMS providers, non-affiliated physicians and their staff and other stakeholders,” Levine said on Dec. 23. “This particularly includes EMS agencies affiliated with their hospitals, as well as independent EMS agencies.”

Secretary Levine’s order created another resource for non-hospital workers. But a central system to access the reserved 10% of vaccine doses at hospitals has not yet been created by the state. Such a resource is currently in development, according to a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Health Department.

“Some hospitals, health systems, [Federally Qualified Health Centers] and pharmacies have public-facing websites … and the department is working to consolidate that to help those in Phase 1A,” they said in a statement.

Health care workers socialize on the lawn outside UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh.

Katie Blackley / WESA

Health care workers socialize on the lawn outside UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh.

Both UPMC and Allegheny Health Network published web pages this week with information about how to get vaccinated at their hospitals.

AHN’s website lists eligible occupations and directs applicants to an email address. The site requests names and contact information for workers needing vaccination. Applicants are asked not to call AHN call centers or hospitals for vaccine information.

In a statement, a spokesperson for AHN said the system has received hundreds of requests since the site went live Monday.

UPMC has published a form for Phase 1A non-hospital workers to complete in order to request vaccination. The system requests users fill out the form for an entire organization or practice, unless the user is a freelancer or the only member of a practice.

UPMC notes that members of the general public should not fill out the form.

“The state has not allocated vaccine for the general public yet, so we ask that people who are not frontline health care workers not visit the site. We will update our patients and communities when the vaccine is more broadly available. Right now, the most effective way for the public to protect themselves and others is to wear a mask covering the mouth and nose, and to practice physical distancing and hand washing,” the statement reads.

A sign at Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh thanks healthcare workers.

Katie Blackley / WESA

A sign at Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh thanks healthcare workers.

UPMC said the system has already vaccinated thousands of non-UPMC health care workers, but did not provide a specific number.

The burden of finding a vaccine provider and scheduling an appointment largely remains on the shoulders of the non-hospital workers themselves. Allegheny County said it has reached out to eligible organizations to encourage them to create an account for access to its vaccine clinic.

McCarthy wonders why there aren’t federally operated clinics administering the vaccine.

“My idea of what would happen would be the federal government would be in charge and the National Guard would have giant tents,” she said. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged that no one should travel more than 10 miles for a vaccine, setting up mass vaccination sites across the country and working with community practices and private doctors to administer vaccines. Such organization on the federal level has not been seen by the Trump administration.

Radomski is also frustrated with the federal government.

“There was no top-down organization. The federal government kicked it to the states. Every state has different laws, different budgets and different needs. It’s frustrating,” said Radomski. She’s been sharing what information she finds on her social media pages.

McCarthy encourages birth workers like doulas, lactation consultants and community midwives to contact the Midwife Center for help getting vaccinated.

McCarthy said she’s sure that, despite the effort of non-hospital workers to help each other, many are falling through the cracks.

“There’s absolutely no coordinated system of how to reach [workers] and make sure they’re able to get the vaccine,” she said.

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