By Nick Keppler
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Pennsylvania is still in phase 1a of its COVID-19 vaccination process.
According to those guidelines, to get an appointment for a vaccine, one must work in healthcare, live in a long-term care facility, be 65 or older, have an underlying medical condition or — as of this month — work as a teacher. These categories were established by the Centers for Disease Control with the goal of decreasing fatalities by vaccinating those most at risk of dying of COVID-19 infected and those who care for them.
But for a single day in late January, employees who worked in the University of Pittsburgh’s Schools of Health Sciences — including people who do not interact with COVID-19 patients or patients of any kind — were able to cut in line and get a coronavirus vaccine from UPMC, the hospital mega-organization that is corporately separate from the university but intermingled with it through a series of complex strategic and personnel arrangements.
On January 27, according to several Pitt personnel who spoke with the Pittsburgh Current, faculty, grad students and researchers across the Schools of Health Sciences received emails from administrators in their departments, telling them that, in the next three days, they could go to the UPMC Mercy South Side Outpatient Center to receive an initial dose of a vaccine. Many Pitt personnel and students spoke on the condition of anonymity for fears of career repercussions.
“We have heard repeated and credible allegations since the beginning of vaccine distribution that UPMC has chosen to vaccinate non-patient facing, work-from-home employees.”
These emails, several of which were provided to the Current, went through several departments from several senders, but they all had the same information: The center was vaccinating Pitt health sciences, people, that week, no appointment needed. “You must bring your Pitt or UPMC ID,” read one typical email. “It is a first-come/first-serve basis and the wait may belong.” The emails made no mention of phase 1a designations.
Later that day, Schools of Health Sciences staffers received emails informing them there had been a mistake and “we are still supposed to be conforming to 1a guidelines,” in the words of one interdepartmental email. However, by then, Pitt personnel had already lined up at the clinic and UPMC staffers were not turning them away.
According to Pitt-affiliated people who were vaccinated that day, UPMC staffers asked them several questions about their work, but these questions did not filter out people ineligible under 1a guidelines. They were asked if their research is related to human health and if they worked with human tissue.
Most of the people within the Schools of Health Sciences could answer yes to one of those questions. The umbrella encompasses schools of medicine, dental medicine, nursing, pharmacy, physical rehabilitation and public health. Within these schools are swaths of people who are not clinicians and whose work would not put them near the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, including a variety of grad students and professional researchers who work with statistics, computer modeling, public policy and biomedical information. But their work, broadly, relates to human health.
One person passed the line after answering yes to the question about working with human tissue, though the only tissue they handle is from cadavers. They were vaccinated. One person said they answered no to all the questions but were “waved through” by UPMC clinicians and received an injection. “Very few people were turned away,” said another Pitt staffer who was vaccinated that day and is also a researcher who does not treat patients.
“I received an email indicating that I could get vaccinated,” Alexis Huet, a research assistant professor, told the Current. Huet works in the Department of Structural Biology, studying biology at the molecular level. His work is done mostly behind a microscope or a computer.
“Later, after I mentioned I was not a priority target of the vaccine at the time, I received some other email indicating that it was a mistake and the vaccine was for the frontline people and not for us,” said Huet.
Individuals who received the first emails rushed to the South Side. Witnesses described a crowd. One said they waited in line for two hours, one hour outside the building and one inside. Another said they were told there was a delay because staffers went to UPMC Presbyterian to get more vaccines. They were allowed to schedule follow-ups to get a second injection and complete the vaccination process. It is unclear where the information that sent the Pitt personnel to the South Side clinic originated.
Department chairs and lab managers within the Schools of Health Sciences were aware that not all of their subordinates were 1a-eligible for the vaccine. On Jan. 5, Anantha Shekhar, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and dean of the School of Medicine, sent them a mass email asking them “to identify which of their faculty, staff and students qualify for phase 1A vaccine distribution.” Shekhar specified that those on the list needed to have direct or indirect exposure to COVID-19 patients or infectious materials or will eventually be tapped to vaccinate Pitt personnel.
Three weeks later, administrators within the same departments were sending emails saying all health sciences grad students and researchers were all eligible.
“The University is aware that misinformation about vaccine availability circulated at a department level,” Kevin Zwick, a Pitt communications manager wrote in an email to the Current. “Pitt did not authorize any communication encouraging ineligible personnel and students to obtain a vaccine. The University worked with UPMC to provide a list of eligible 1A personnel to be vaccinated, in accordance with state guidance. For questions about the process and protocols at UPMC’s Southside clinic, I’ll refer you to UPMC.”
A UPMC spokesperson provided the Current with the following statement, “UPMC is currently vaccinating people who fit into the Phase 1A categorization. In January, Pitt was providing UPMC with its list of eligible 1A personnel to be vaccinated. Without more information, we cannot look into these claims.” A summary of the above series of events was included in the Current’s request for comment.
The largest nongovernmental employer in Pennsylvania, an indomitable economic force, UPMC has administered 230,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines, according to its website. It is one of the main gatekeepers entrusted with the vaccine in Pennsylvania. The network has faced criticism since January for vaccinating its researchers, fundraisers and communications and administrative staff. UPMC’s broad definition of a healthcare worker has meant its own employees with no contact with COVID-19 patients — even some of whom work from home — were vaccinated before police, firefighters and grocery store workers, all of whom are in the phase 1b grouping, which is slated to be vaccinated starting in April.
State Sen. Lindsey Williams, a Democrat who represents northern Allegheny County, has scrutinized UPMC’s rollout.
“We have heard repeated and credible allegations since the beginning of vaccine distribution that UPMC has chosen to vaccinate non-patient facing, work-from-home employees,” she told the Current.
She added that “we have an institutional, not individual, problem with adhering and enforcing the phased vaccination plan. The Department of Health has not enforced the rules for UPMC or other providers that are vaccinating outside of 1A.”
The people who got vaccinated on the South Side on Jan. 27 had varying reflections on their good fortune.
One researcher, who doesn’t work with patients, but with computers and high-end lab equipment, expressed understandable relief. “It felt so unreal,” they said, “a bit like I was in a movie going from black and white to color.”
Another said he hesitated. He is a foreign national and was nudged by the thought he would not be able to visit home without a vaccination card. The crowded scene and lack of scrutiny at the UPMC clinic made him think the process was fraught enough to unravel, possibly leaving him with no other chance soon, so he took it.
“I never would have done this back home because I would have trusted the system to distribute vaccines in some fair and equitable way,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is unbelievable. This could all shut down tomorrow.’”