As total U.S. Covid deaths pass 400,000 — with several effective vaccines developed — the puzzle is figuring out where the first limited doses will do the most good.

In a multipronged effort to prioritize the biggest impact among Phase 1A groups, UPMC vaccinated workers with The Violence Prevention Initiative, the Neighborhood Resilience Project and Casa San Jose at their South Side clinic on Tuesday afternoon.

By getting these community advocates inoculated, they hope to fight vaccine hesitancy in vulnerable, often minority populations, where Covid has had a disproportionately terrible effect.

“We know that health happens outside of the health care system,” says Dr. Maya Ragavan, a health equity expert who helped UPMC create the prioritization system.

“And the work that community health organizers do — like the three organizations here today — is really life-saving and so instrumental to improving health and wellness. And so I think it’s really important that we elevate their work,” says Ragavan.

A project of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, The Violence Prevention Initiative provides holistic services for people who have been incarcerated, helping them re-enter their communities and avoid returning to jail. The Violence Prevention Initiative provides mentoring, workforce development and training, family reunification education and housing assistance planning. They’ve partnered for workforce training in fields ranging from manufacturing to food service to construction.

“The Neighborhood Resilience Project has trained over 100 community health deputies, who work in and around Pittsburgh communities providing health education around Covid, as well as masks, PPE (personal protective equipment), things like that,” says Ragavan.

“Casa San Jose works particularly with the growing Latino community of Pittsburgh and does a lot of life-saving work, supporting them and promoting their health and wellness.”

One hundred people people total from these organizations will be vaccinated.

Photo courtesy of UPMC.

Ragavan herself was vaccinated as part of the Moderna clinical trials.

“It was interesting to be part of history, and contribute to science that way,” she says.

State expands vaccine eligibility

On Tuesday the state announced that vaccination eligibility is expanding to approximately 3.5 million Pennsylvanians.

“Pennsylvania is expanding our vaccination efforts to start including anyone over 65 and people ages 16-64 with serious medical conditions that make them more at risk for severe illness due to COVID-19,” said Cindy Findley, the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s deputy secretary for health promotion and disease prevention, and leader of the state’s Vaccine Task Force.

To begin the process, you must complete a vaccine eligibility quiz. Then, there’s a map to help find the nearest vaccine provider.

Tuesday evening, however, Allegheny County Health Depart Director Dr. Debra Bogen released a statement clarifying that current supplies remain limited to only about 20,000 doses per week, so the Health Department will continue to focus on those in the original Phase 1A cohort — mainly healthcare workers — until they are fully vaccinated.

“In the coming weeks, the Health Department will announce its revised plans for an expanded vaccine rollout,” said Bogen in her statement. “These plans will prioritize reaching those residents 75 and older and those 65 and older with specific health conditions through large vaccination clinics, mobile clinics and pop-up events.”

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

Vaccinations are being administered at The DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Pittsburgh-Monroeville Convention Center in Monroeville.

“Healthcare workers eligible for Phase 1A vaccinations will receive a registration link from the county and can use that link to schedule a vaccine appointment,” said Bogen. “This link should not be shared outside the intended recipients. Anyone booking an appointment at the Monroeville site who is not authorized to do so will be turned away. Anyone without an appointment will also be turned away.”

UPMC is prioritizing 1A recipients in the categories outlined here.

“We are eager to vaccinate more members of the communities we serve as soon as we can,” read a statement by UPMC. “The most effective way for the public to continue to protect themselves and others is to wear a mask covering the mouth and nose, and to practice physical distancing and handwashing.”

A patient hotline also available with a recorded message of the latest vaccine updates at 1-833-299-4359.

The Health Department has a source for vaccine updates called Allegheny Alerts, which you can specify receiving messages via text, email or phone call.