UPMC Northwest vaccine clinics underway

UPMC Northwest’s COVID vaccine clinics are off and running and poised to expand even more.

Two small pilot clinics were held Monday and Wednesday at the hospital for residents 80 and older and who were contacted by the hospital to set up appointments. Nearly 300 individuals were vaccinated with the Pfizer version in those two days, and hospital nurses are administering the vaccine.

“We wanted to ensure that when we open the larger ones that we have a good process in place to limit the amount of wait time and standing for people so they are in and out efficiently,” said Katelin Speer, pharmacist and director of operations at UPMC Northwest.

Today, a large clinic designed to accommodate about 500 individuals will be held at the Seneca fire hall.

Another clinic is scheduled Tuesday at the fire hall for 500 more residents. Each clinic requires prior appointments arranged by UPMC Northwest and walk-ins will not be accepted.

The category of eligible residents has been expanded from the 80-and-over population to 65 and over plus younger individuals with pre-existing health conditions.

“We have added those people,” said Speer. “We are working to get through the earlier group but we want to move quickly to other groups. So, we opened it to a larger group to get people in faster. We were notified we will be receiving more vaccine this week so as soon as we knew that, we felt comfortable expanding the available time slots. That way we can maximize our clinics.”

‘It is working’

The initial rollout for the 80-and-above group was successful, said Speer. UPMC’s call center system called those in that age group who had any affiliation with the UPMC system to arrange vaccine appointments, and those calls are continuing.

“It is working,” said Speer. “And we were able to drive our call center when we didn’t see the results we needed . We want to push those calls. One complication was that senior citizens have been warned about scams for so long that they were hesitant to pick up (the calls) and to share information. I think we have worked that out.”

In overseeing the 80-and-over clinics this week, Speer described the overall feeling expressed by the vaccine recipients as one of relief.

” People seem to be very relieved because so many of them have been afraid to go out in public for a year now and they have been staying in their homes,” Speer said. “These are the people who are the most at-risk from the virus. They have had a Christmas that they couldn’t spend with their families and they have missed milestone events. This offers a shot of hope for them and gives them some sense that there is an endpoint to this.”

What comes next?

The hospital’s vaccine campaign ramps up next week with the addition of an online and telephone registration system for appointments. The clinic site, too, will be changed to a larger area to allow for an expansion of the inoculation procedures.

“We are working to set up the infrastructure to handle the volume of calls,” said Speer. “So it will change from us calling you to you calling us for an appointment. We need to make sure that system works, both on a website and by live phone. We will get that information out quickly.”

The hospital is working with county officials and others to identify another possible clinic site, and the search includes the Cranberry Mall.

“Hopefully, we can pivot to a larger space by the end of this week or by early next week,” said Speer, adding that a more expansive location will ease issues of setting up equipment, arranging supplies and more on a sustained basis. “Social distancing and the 15-minute hold (for any vaccine reactions) require a large physical space. These will be semi-permanent clinics because we are going to be in this vaccine business for weeks and months to come. We need a more permanent home.”

Age limits remain

What will not change yet, though, is the group eligible for the vaccine.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health has specific guidelines about when the COVID vaccines can be distributed to specific groups. Those distribution directives apply directly to how much vaccine will be allocated to pharmacies, hospitals and other health groups.

“We did add the 65-and-older category and younger with pre-existing conditions this week. There are more than 8,500 individuals in Venango County between the ages of 65 and 75 and so it will take some time,” said Speer. “In opening that up, it meant a huge group is eligible.

“But, no one else has been added, much to the chagrin of a lot of people, including teachers The state, though, determines the guidelines as to groups and we are held right now to vaccinate only those in the 1-A group. We have to move with the state on that.”

‘Everyone has been wonderful’

In working relentlessly to devise an appointment plan, lobby for more vaccine supplies, set up a clinic site and more, Speer and her coworkers have been encouraged by strong community support.

“The Seneca fire team, Community Ambulance Service, the commissioners – everyone has been wonderful in giving their time and their effort,” said Speer. “It is really nice to see the community offer up as much help as they can. It is wonderful to watch that happen.”