Visitor OP / ED: Our native well being services should present vaccine info and entry

Chelsa Wagner
Allegheny County Controller

On paper, Allegheny County’s residents should be some of the best supported when it comes to finding and receiving one of the coveted COVID-19 vaccines. We have one of only six county-level health departments in 67 counties in Pennsylvania and host the $ 20 billion annually health company UPMC, which trumpets its “world-class care.”

But local residents who spend hours searching the Internet and phoning in search of a vaccine have very often wondered where in the world these taxpayer-supported and subsidized institutions can help them.

While the introduction of federal and state vaccination efforts was no doubt chaotic and left much to be desired, where should our residents get their legs up (or arm out) of community resources?

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner

While the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) itself controls relatively few vaccine doses (though more than any other entity in the county except UPMC and Allegheny Health Network), it was not a clearinghouse for information on where the vaccine could be used. A government-provided online map shows dozens of potential providers, but does not provide any information about whether appointments are available on these websites or whether recordings are even offered to the public.

When ACHD fleetingly offered to schedule convocation dates for the only location currently selling vaccines, all slots were occupied within minutes, with the vast majority of callers getting a busy signal, disconnected, or (worst) redirecting to scammers who apparently hacked into the system. While several hundred were actually helped, exponentially more were probably even more frustrated than before.

If the goal was to help those who don’t have internet access make appointments, why not identify those limited shots and assign them to the most vulnerable populations rather than sending many of them wild goose hunts? And if those with access problems are the problem, why is the only ACHD vaccination clinic in Monroeville to begin with?

The most robust resource as the central clearinghouse for vaccine appointment information has turned out to be a voluntary operation initiated by University of Pittsburgh students on While the bizarrely decentralized nature of vaccination efforts makes maintaining such a central repository difficult, the fact that the best efforts by college students were made on their own initiative with no public funding and not our health department should be shocking.

ACHD’s top priority should be to put a centralized planning platform for vaccination sites in the county online, or at least provide reliable information about which sites have vaccines and are offering recordings to the public. This should be the only focus of the recently appointed Chief Operating Officer of the Department of Health. (And maybe bring those college students on board too.)

In the meantime, UPMC has stated that it will continue to focus on delivering vaccines to healthcare workers, even though rival Allegheny Health Network has offered limited doses to the public. While healthcare workers rightly come first, it wouldn’t be UPMC, which we have come to know all too well without an unhealthy level of selfishness. In violation of the spirit, if not of the writing of federal guidelines, UPMC has vaccinated an indefinite number of its employees in areas such as marketing and law who rarely set foot in a health facility or may even work from home. We then learned that UPMC had not bothered to trace the racist makeup of the people vaccinated, as the federal government has asked all providers to do. This is inexcusable in a region where ethnic minorities have shockingly different health outcomes and respond to a disease that has disproportionately infected and killed minorities.

If UPMC’s vaccines become publicly available, our region’s residents, who have subsidized the growth of a global health giant, shouldn’t have to search for them or beg for them. Recordings should be readily available and accessible regardless of whether they are a UPMC patient and what insurance (if any) they have, and they should be offered in communal settings to accommodate those who may or may not be transportation who watch out for hospitals. While many of us are fortunate enough to take access to health care for granted, so many in underserved communities are not. These populations simply have to be reached.

Unfortunately, the shortcomings we see with our largest regional health agency and our dominant “nonprofit” health care provider are not new to either ACHD or UPMC.

My office revealed that ACHD was providing misleading information to downplay the risk of lead levels in drinking water higher than those in Flint when discovered by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority in 2017, and delayed alerting Clairton residents when one Fire increased industrial pollution in their community UPMC has repeatedly turned its back on underserved local communities as it opened facilities in more affluent communities and around the world, trying to keep those with the “wrong” insurance out of their hospitals even if they do their taxes happily maintain exemptions and oppose any meaningful payments to our local governments or school districts.

So many of us have committed in word and deed to get out of the COVID-19 pandemic not only to return to “normalcy,” but also to bring more justice to those in our community who are essential workers, those with housing and Facing food insecurity. and who have been marginalized in various other ways that the pandemic made worse. Ending the “everyone for himself” mentality in health care – which cannot be better illustrated than messing the elderly and medically vulnerable and their families to secure these vaccines – must be a top priority. This must include defining what a public health agency and “non-profit” health care provider should actually do for our citizens.

In the short term, these institutions must be strengthened in order to meet the level of service and responsibility that is now required.

The district health department must:

  1. Start an effort to provide an information clearinghouse for vaccine availability and appointments with all local providers.
  2. While recognizing the limits of knowing about future vaccine allocations, provide as clear a message as possible about how many are available in the county, when and how many more are expected, and who is likely to be eligible to receive them and when. and,
  3. Increased efforts to ensure that shots are available in underserved communities, not just the suburban communities where clinics are currently operating or planned.

While UPMC has a lot of work to do to live up to its bill as a “public only charity”, it could take this opportunity to rebuild trust in our communities by:

  1. Focus your efforts on underserved communities, abandoned or ignored in search of more profitable patients, and where the bulk of low-wage workers live.
  2. If circumstances permit, offer vaccinations to all teachers and staff at Pittsburgh Public Schools and other local high poverty districts to allow teachers and students to return to the classroom.
  3. Start with substantial payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) and fee-free services to the city, county and school districts to address public health issues that have become more acute as UPMC has grown and become more profitable.

To handle this moment and make sure our community comes back stronger from the pandemic, these institutions just have to do better.

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