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Immunity for the community: How to find your COVID vaccine

The public wants to know how to find appointments for getting immunized against COVID-19. With a majority of Americans eager to be vaccinated, we are cautiously hopeful this long pandemic will end. Significantly more vaccine doses are being manufactured and distributed free to all adults, no matter where you live, where you were born, and what your race or ethnicity is.

Vaccines and other public health measures save lives. The Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines all are safe and strikingly effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID, all worthwhile endpoints. If you need convincing beyond these vaccines’ clinical trial results that led to emergency use authorizations in the U.S., go no further than recalling that the huge improvements in U.S. life expectancy in our parents’ and grandparents’ generations came about through childhood immunizations, sanitary drinking water, and tobacco control. People like my great uncle no longer die in infancy from measles, nor do youngsters get polio and require “iron lungs” — the “ventilators” of my childhood. Flu vaccines save thousands of American lives each year, and we now have a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer — good news for avoiding malignancy!

So, if COVID vaccination is as coveted and important as most believe, why has it been so difficult to get jabbed?

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, was first identified in early 2020. Within 10 weeks, science had accomplished the remarkable job of decoding the virus’ genomic signature and developing vaccines that induce the human immune system to produce protective antibodies. In the following months, those vaccines were tested rigorously and mass produced. So far, so good. Enter the need to scale up vaccine distribution to every adult in the nation for the first time. To do so, the federal government took the extraordinary step of pre-purchasing all the COVID vaccines manufactured here. While directly distributing significant amounts to community health centers and to selected chain pharmacies in under-resourced areas, the feds send most COVID vaccine doses to each state for redistribution. It then became the job of chronically underfunded state and local health departments, which were already coping with managing COVID outbreaks through testing, contact tracing, and mitigation, to insure that vaccines get into our arms at approved locations and in long-term care facilities.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) provides public information about vaccines and where Pennsylvanians may get them on its website. Since January, we at the Lycoming County Health Improvement Coalition have simplified that approved list for Lycoming and surrounding counties. We update it twice weekly and provide it to local health and human service providers, to this newspaper, and to trusted messengers in many community groups. The complete listing at https://tinyurl.com/49jr6ahh provides both telephone numbers as well as website links so that eligible people may schedule COVID immunizations in the most convenient way for them. Here is a sample with phone numbers; many of these large clinics have readily available appointments:

• Evangelical: 570-522-4530

• Geisinger/Jersey Shore: 570-284 3657

• River Valley: 570-567-5400

• UPMC: 844-UPMC-VAC

Some organizations have been reaching out directly to eligible Pennsylvanians to offer reserved appointments. Included are those listed above plus the STEP/Office of Aging and all 28 Intermediate Units in Pennsylvania that have set up clinics to immunize private and public school staff, pre-K to grade 12. Interestingly, most doctors’ practices other than River Valley and some selected offices at Family Practice Centers, Inc. are not approved to give COVID vaccines for reasons of scale and efficiency. Your family doctor, who is 95 percent likely to have been already vaccinated, still is an important person to consult when you feel skeptical or have specific vaccine concerns.

By early April, every approved COVID vaccine provider in Pennsylvania should have cleared waitlists and finished scheduling appointments for older adults, healthcare workers, and high risk people of all ages in Phase 1A, which will permit moving on to Phase 1B. In coming weeks, the federal government plans to have a centralized vaccine-finding website, and hopefully telephone alternatives, for every American’s use in keeping with the President’s promise that all adults who want COVID vaccines will be eligible to begin scheduling appointments by April 19.

Remember that COVID vaccines are free to everyone (no out-of-pocket costs), and insurance is not required. Your personal health information will remain private and will not be shared with government agencies. If you need transportation, it can be provided at no charge by calling Lyft, STEP van, or River Valley Transit in advance of a scheduled appointment. When people need information in languages other than English, that, too, is available in Spanish, French, Korean, traditional Chinese, as well as ASL. And if you previously were undecided about getting immunized, or if you refused a COVID vaccination when offered, you will not be turned away and may apply again.

With even more contagious coronavirus variants on the rise and variant cases spiking in nearby Centre County, now is the time to stay vigilant.

Even fully vaccinated people should continue social distancing, masking when in public, and practicing good hand hygiene. Protect your community, don’t waste your shot, and please remember that the best vaccine is the one you get.

Barbara Hemmendinger, a member of the Lycoming County Health Improvement Coalition and retired family medicine educator, belongs to Let’s end COVID!, a group of concerned people in northcentral PA working to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic through education, outreach and mitigation.

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