Vaccination at UPMC's South Side clinic. Photo courtesy of UPMC.

Starting next week, Allegheny County is getting a new online system for setting up vaccine appointments.

“As early adopters of the state registration system, we realized there were just a number of things that just didn’t really work out for us,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald on Wednesday during a press conference.

A new system, developed by the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) with help from the county’s IT department, will let residents pre-register and get notifications when the vaccination clinics for which they are eligible are open. The system will prevent people from registering for clinics for which they are not eligible, which has been a major problem up to this point, notes Fitzgerald.

“I’m confident that scheduling will be more user-friendly” with the new registration tool, says ACHD Director Dr. Debra Bogen.

Details about the new system and how to register will be announced next week.

Online registration using the old system will end at 9 a.m. on Friday, March 26; phone registration through the 2-1-1 system will end at 5 p.m. on Friday.

Starting today, people ages 16-64 who are eligible under Pennsylvania’s Phase 1A group, can be vaccinated. Medical conditions for eligibility include cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD, Down syndrome, heart conditions (but not high blood pressure), immunocompromised, obesity, pregnancy, sickle cell disease, smoking and Type 2 diabetes.

Last week was the final week for the clinic at the DoubleTree Hotel in Monroeville, which provided more than 37,000 vaccines over two and a half months. For those still requiring second doses, there will be a clinic on Wednesday, April 14 at the Monroeville Convention Center.

Current county vaccination sites include the Castle Shannon VFD Banquet Hall, Central Baptist Church in the Hill District, Petersen Events Center and the Ross Community Center gymnasium. Appointments are required for all sites.

Despite 370,000 vaccinations so far in Allegheny County — where residents have received at least one shot — Covid case counts are high and on the rise. The ACHD reported 498 new cases on Wednesday, March 25 — although today the count was down to 282.

Dr. Debra L. Bogen (right), director of the Allegheny County Health Department.

Covid virus variants are a concern at the moment. At least 33 cases of the U.K. variant (B117) have been detected in Allegheny County.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg since fewer than 1% of cases undergo genotyping to determine variant status,” said Bogen. “The U.K. variant is estimated to be about 50% more transmissible and somewhat more likely to result in hospitalization.”

The good news is that statewide, more than 4.5 million doses of the vaccine have been distributed. Pennsylvania has gone from 30th to 17th in the rate of vaccinations among states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Another positive trend is that there are 74,000 fully vaccinated people in Allegheny County, according to Bogen. Of those 74,000 vaccinated individuals, there were only 31 “breakthrough” cases of Covid detected, and only three of those 31 required hospitalization.

“The median age of cases fell by nearly a decade over the past few weeks and is now in the low 30s,” said Bogen. “This change was largely driven by a 6% increase in cases among those ages 5 to 18 and a 10% decline in cases among those aged 65 and older, from January to March.

“I presume that this large drop in cases in those 65 and older is due to efforts to vaccinate this high-risk group. As of last week, more than 65% of those 65 and older in our county had received at least one vaccine dose.”

What’s driving the resurgence of Covid cases? “From our case investigations, we hear that people are gathering with friends in larger groups than even a few weeks ago,” said Bogen. “And many of the gatherings are without masks.”

There have been 1,750 deaths due to Covid in Allegheny County thus far.

Bogen urges county residents to continue to use masks, stay physically distant and wash hands.

There’s also a treatment that appears to be working for Covid patients: monoclonal antibodies. It’s administered via IV in an outpatient clinic.

“Research studies show that it may keep Covid-19 symptoms from becoming severe,” said Bogen. “People who received the treatment are less likely to get sicker, leading to an emergency room visit or being admitted to the hospital. This treatment is available to higher-risk individuals who test positive for Covid-19 and are within 10 days of symptom onset.”

To qualify for this treatment, you have to be either 65 or older or ages 55-64 with heart disease, high blood pressure or lung disease, or ages 18 or older with diabetes, immunosuppression, kidney disease or obesity.

The city and county have also worked together on a program to provide nearly $80 million in funding to assist with rent and utilities with so many people out of work.

“The program opened on March the 15th and to date, we’ve received over nearly 3,000 applications. So we’re working on those,” Fitzgerald said.

Applications are available online. Residents can also contact Action Housing, which is managing the program for the city and the county, at: 412-248-0021.

“The most important thing is that people continue to keep their group sizes small, that they meet outdoors whenever possible — and the weather has been glorious,” said Bogen.

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.