Voice of Westmoreland, a local nonpartisan grassroots organization, is advocating for equitable distribution of the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine to all eligible county residents.

The organization hosted a community town hall Feb. 2, which brought together representatives from Service Employees International Union, Healthcare PA, United Food and Commercial Workers, Communication Workers of America, Union Mission, Westmoreland Community Action, Greensburg-Jeannette NAACP and the Greater Parkview Church.

Voice of Westmoreland volunteer Pam Curtin said the organization had three key takeaways from the town hall regarding issues that need to be addressed with vaccine rollout: An improved way for residents to register for the vaccine, transportation for residents to get to vaccine appointments, and educational resources for the public about the vaccine.

The Westmoreland County Commissioners on Thursday announced plans to coordinate a county registry to aid in vaccine distribution, after the public called for the county to help alleviate the frustrations of those who have been unable to get inoculated.

The commissioners said they plan to engage in talks with Excela Health this week regarding a COVID-19 vaccine database that would allow county residents who want the vaccine to register for appointments, when available, or to be contacted when doses of the vaccine become available.

When asked about the commissioners’ proposal, an Excela Health spokesperson said more information would be available later today, Feb. 16.

“We are very pleased to hear about the development of a registry and appreciate that these concerns were heard,” Curtin said.

“...But one of our main concerns now is ensuring that that registry is equitable so that people can still access it.”

That includes placing an emphasis on vaccinating “at-risk” groups, which Curtin said includes: People of color, people without housing, and others in Phase 1A of the state’s rollout.

“Many of those people are the ones most at-risk and really need the vaccine, so we want to make sure that they are able to actually sign up for it and then get it,” Curtin said.

Another issue is that some eligible residents who are able to register might not have transportation available to get to their vaccine appointment.

“Since we don’t have a large-scale public transportation system and the system we do have isn’t always able to service remote and rural areas, we are looking for opportunities for improving transportation,” she said.

Curtin mentioned ideas like taxi systems or mobile clinics to assist in administering more shots.

The Westmoreland County Transit Authority has fixed-route transportation to or near most medical facilities, with bus service available to anyone — with no reservations or requirements to use the service, according to the county’s website. Additionally, GO Westmoreland is a program of Westmoreland Transit that provides door-to-door transportation for older adults, residents with disabilities, or those eligible for Medical Assistance Transportation. Call Westmoreland Transit at 724-834-9282 or GO Westmoreland at 724-832-2706 for assistance.

Westmoreland County officials in late-January unveiled a comprehensive vaccination webpage, which includes resources for residents about registration and availability. Westmoreland County currently follows the state Department of Health’s COVID-19 vaccination plan which does not include a centralized registration system. In this plan, residents make appointments through individual providers which are part of the vaccine distribution program.

“There are steps like that being taken,” Curtin said regarding the county’s vaccination webpage. “There are some additional steps that we would be interested in seeing them take as well.”

That includes helping residents without internet access to register.

In Allegheny County, residents 65 and older can now call 2-1-1 to schedule a vaccine appointment for the Monroeville vaccination site. The county’s Health Department has partnered with the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania to offer the service for those without internet access or for those having trouble navigating the vaccine registration website, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Curtin said Voice of Westmoreland would like to see Westmoreland County officials establish a similar system to assist those who cannot register online themselves.

“We are certainly looking at what other counties are doing and hoping to see more things like that happening in Westmoreland, as well,” she said.

Curtin said Voice of Westmoreland leadership often discusses these issues with county officials.

“We are a nonpartisan organization, so we are always trying to keep our local officials up to date with what we’re doing and communicate with them,” she said.

The Westmoreland County Commissioners did not respond to the Bulletin’s request for comment last week regarding Voice of Westmoreland’s takeaways from the online town hall.

People without internet access or who need help registering for an appointment can call the state’s health hotline at 1-877-724-3258.

Through Voice of Westmoreland’s partnering groups, the organization would like to promote education about the vaccine by “engaging in public education campaigns to increase awareness for the need for everyone to be immunized so we can overcome COVID-19,” Curtin said.

“There are many misconceptions and concerns about the safety of the vaccine and its efficacy,” she added. “So, we really want to get the good scientific information out there, as well as information about the logistics.”

As of Monday, 23,760 partial vaccinations and 11,976 full vaccinations have been administered in Westmoreland County. Pennsylvania has administered 1.25 million partial vaccinations and 403,434 full vaccinations.

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