The COVID-19 roll-out in the Penn Highlands Healthcare (PHH) region has been a success, but officials say it will take months for the process to be completed.
At a teleconference today, PHH Chief Operating Officer Mark Norman said that close to 3,000 employees have received the first dose of the vaccine with second dose to start Friday.
Norman stressed that PHH will follow the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PDH) guidelines on who receives the shots and when, but those guidelines can be changed as the effort continues. Right now, the organization is in Phase 1A, healthcare personnel. Phase 1B will will include front line workers, including grocery store workers, educators, and others. Phase 1C will be for all other essential workers. No timeline has been given as to when the vaccine will be available to the general public.
While this process continues, Norman said it is vitally important for area residents to continue mitigation efforts such as social distancing, wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings, and washing hands.
“It is going to take all of us working together to keep each other safe and for this vaccination plan to work smoothly and efficiently for our communities,” he said. “There are more than a half-a-million people in the areas we serve, and it is inevitable for many logistical reasons [for the vaccinations] to take months to get through each of these phases group by group.”
During the teleconference, Andrew Kurtz, system director for retail pharmacy services and vaccination lead for PHH, stated that the vaccine roll-out included Penn Highlands Jefferson Manor in Brookville, where residents and staff received their first doses December 30. Second doses will be administered later this month.
Kurtz said PHH has also provided vaccines to other healthcare workers, including school nurses, EMS workers, dentists, optometrists, and others.
“We’re requesting everyone’s patience and cooperation to insure we can administer the vaccine in an orderly and efficient manner to each group in each of these phases,” he said. Kurtz added, “It’s going to take all of us working together as a team to keep each other safe and for this vaccination plan to work smoothly and efficiently for our communities.”
Current COVID-19 status
Dr Mark Sheehan, who leads the pandemic response at Penn Highlands, advised everyone to remain cautious, especially since there’s a new variant of the virus that is more transmissible. He also said it’s important for people to make sure they take care of their own health by continuing annual exam schedules and annual care.
“It’s important that routine care continue during this pandemic,” he said.
As far as trends are concerned, Dr. Sheehan said it is to early to tell just exactly which direction the number of cases is headed, especially with the recent holiday gatherings and the fact that hospitalizations lag a week or more behind new case discoveries.
In the last four days, he said, Penn Highlands has received 112 positive results across the region. Currently, 72 people are hospitalized in PHH facilities for COVID-19, with 30% receiving respiratory support. He did say the latest cases are showing less ventilator use. PHH is averaging about 100 covid tests a day across the system.
There is some good news. Dr. Sheehan said PHH is seeing a dramatic drop in the number of flu cases this year.
“Coronavirus precautions also help prevent influenza transmission,” he said. He added, “The more that we can come together and work together and find ways to disseminate this vaccine, the faster it will be in people’s arms, so I think ‘it takes a village’ can’t be overemphasized.”
Is the vaccine safe?
When asked if the vaccine was safe, Andrew Kurtz quoted CDC statistics that state only one in one million people are experiencing any type of serious side effects. While close to 3.000 employees have been vaccinated, he said only a few employees at each facility have reported minor side effects.
Dr. Sheehan said he had no reservations about receiving the vaccine. He said those who have questions should contact their primary care physician with their concerns.
“It’s safe and let’s get vaccinated,” he said.
When asked if there was any truth to the rumor that the vaccine could cause infertility, Dr. Sheehan said, “That’s a resounding no.” He said this is an unfortunate rumor that’s being circulated.
PHH plans additional teleconferences in the future to keep area residents informed about the pandemic and the vaccination efforts.