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Area counties won’t require COVID-19 vaccine for government employees

All executive branch employees in Allegheny County’s government will soon be required to be vaccinated from COVID-19, but don’t expect any neighboring counties to follow suit.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced Wednesday that workers under his leadership will be required to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 1 or face termination, although the order does not include other employees, such as those working in the courthouse.

“As we continue to see cases of COVID in our county, and different populations being affected than were previously, it is even more important that our workforce be protected so that the public that we serve is protected as well,” Fitzgerald in a written statement. “This is the right thing for our county and our workforce.”

About 75% of all workers in the county government’s executive branch are already fully vaccinated from COVID-19, according to county officials. The county began requiring all new hires to be vaccinated starting in August.

While area officials in Fayette, Greene and Washington counties said they’re monitoring the situation, there are no plans to mandate a vaccine for their government workers.

However, Washington County has offered an “incentive” of a half-sick day to anyone who can prove they are vaccinated, which officials said was to give workers time to get the shots. So far, 314 workers out of about 860 part-time and full-time employees have shown proof of vaccination, although county Human Resources Director Shelli Arnold said that number could be higher because they’re not required to show their status. But even with only 36% of the county’s workforce known to be vaccinated, there are no plans to mandate it.

Commission Chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan said they are following state and federal health guidelines, and are requiring unvaccinated workers to quarantine at home if they come in contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19. If an unvaccinated employee misses time, that worker must then use county sick leave while away.

“They really work on the front lines and are with people every day,” Irey Vaughan said.

Although they’re not mandating the vaccine, Irey Vaughan and fellow commissioners Nick Sherman and Larry Maggi are trying to set an example for county employees by being vaccinated themselves. Irey Vaughan and Sherman announced in April they were getting vaccinated, while Maggi received his two doses last summer while participating in Pfizer’s clinical trial in Columbus, Ohio. Maggi said last week he still has not received a booster shot while he remains in the trial.

“Choosing to be vaccinated for us was trying to lead by example,” Irey Vaughan said, while adding she also recently received a flu vaccine. “We have a very strong wellness program (in Washington County). My opinion, for me, was the COVID vaccine was another step for wellness.”

Greene County Chief Clerk Jeff Marshall said there are no plans to require the vaccine for county employees, which is a decision that ultimately would be up to the commissioners. Marshall added that county leaders are not “tracking” employee vaccines statuses, nor asking to see vaccination cards.

“We’re evaluating things day-to-day and see how things go,” Marshall said. “They’re looking at it daily, but nothing is imminent.”

Greene County Commission Chairman Mike Belding said they’re recommending that employees follow federal and state health guidelines, but they have no plans to go beyond that since the county does not have its own health department. If the guidance from those agencies change, the county will notify its workers about the updated policies, he said.

“That’s been our stance from the beginning. We don’t have a health department in the county, so we refer them to the educated authoritative (agencies) above us ... and we leave it at that,” Belding said.

The county does not expect to offer an incentive program for employees to get vaccinated, Belding said, because the shots are now widely available. He declined to reveal whether he has been vaccinated, preferring to keep that information private.

“The vaccine has been available for so long, I can’t image they haven’t had time to go get it. I don’t see a requirement to do that,” Belding said. “They can make up their own decisions.”

Belding’s counterpart in Fayette County, Commission Chairman Dave Lohr agreed, saying there will be no mandate for government employees there.

“I will not mandate, “Lohr said while emphasizing he was speaking for himself and not on the behalf of the other two commissioners. “I feel it is a choice of every person (whether) to get a shot or not. This is my opinion.”

Fayette County Human Resources Director Cristi Spiker reiterated that in an emailed statement, saying they will continue to follow federal rules as they currently stand.

“The federal vaccine mandates are being developed under OSHA,” Spiker said. “Local and state governments are not subject to OSHA regulations, so the county will not have to comply.”

Merck says COVID-19 pill cuts risk of death, hospitalization

WASHINGTON – In a potential leap forward in the global fight against the pandemic, drugmaker Merck said Friday that its experimental pill for people sick with COVID-19 reduced hospitalizations and deaths by half.

If cleared by regulators, it would be the first pill shown to treat COVID-19, adding a whole new, easy-to-use weapon to an arsenal that already includes the vaccine.

The company said it will soon ask health officials in the U.S. and around the world to authorize the pill’s use. A decision from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could come within weeks after that, and the drug, if it gets the OK, could be distributed quickly soon afterward.

All other COVID-19 treatments now authorized in the U.S. require an IV or injection. A pill taken at home, by contrast, would ease pressure on hospitals and could also help curb outbreaks in poorer and more remote corners of the world that don’t have access to the more expensive infusion therapies.

“This would allow us to treat many more people much more quickly and, we trust, much less expensively,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University who was not involved in the research.

Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said early results showed patients who received the drug, molnupiravir, within five days of COVID-19 symptoms had about half the rate of hospitalization and death as those who received a dummy pill.

The study tracked 775 adults with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who were considered high risk for severe disease because of health problems such as obesity, diabetes or heart disease. The results have not been reviewed by outside experts, the usual procedure for vetting new medical research.

Among patients taking molnupiravir, 7.3% were either hospitalized or died at the end of 30 days, compared with 14.1% of those getting the dummy pill. After that time period, there were no deaths among those who received the drug, compared with eight in the placebo group, according to Merck.

The results were so strong that an independent group of medical experts monitoring the trial recommended stopping it early.

Company executives said they plan to submit the data to the FDA in the coming days.

Even with the news of a potentially effective new treatment, experts stressed the importance of vaccines for controlling the pandemic, given that they help prevent transmission and also reduce the severity of illness in those who do get infected.

White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients said that vaccination will remain the government’s main strategy for controlling the pandemic. “We want to prevent infections, not just wait to treat them when they happen,” he said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s foremost authority on infectious diseases, called the results from Merck “very good news.”

Merck only studied its drug in people who were not vaccinated. But FDA regulators may consider authorizing it for broader use in vaccinated patients who get breakthrough COVID-19 symptoms.

Andrew Pekosz of Johns Hopkins University predicted vaccines and antiviral drugs would ultimately be used together to protect against the worst effects of COVID-19.

“These shouldn’t be seen as replacements for vaccination – the two should be seen as two strategies that can be used together to significantly reduce severe disease,” said Pekosz, a virology specialist.

Patients take four pills of molnupiravir twice a day for five days. Side effects were reported by both groups in the Merck trial, but they were slightly more common among those who received a dummy pill. The company did not specify the problems.

Earlier study results showed the drug did not benefit patients who were already hospitalized with severe disease. That’s not surprising, given that antiviral drugs are most effective when used before the virus ramps up in the body.

The U.S. has approved one antiviral drug, remdesivir, for COVID-19, and allowed emergency use of three antibody therapies that help the immune system fight the virus. But all the drugs are expensive and have to given by IV or injection at hospitals or clinics, and supplies have been stretched by the latest surge of the delta variant.

The antibody drugs have been shown to reduce hospitalization and death by roughly 70% when given to high-risk patients, roughly 20 percentage points more than Merck’s pill. But experts cautioned against comparing results from the two, given the preliminary nature of Merck’s data.

Health experts, including Fauci, have long called for a convenient pill that patients could take when COVID-19 symptoms first appear, much the way Tamiflu is given to help speed recovery from the flu.

Like other antivirals, Merck’s pill works by interfering with the virus’s ability to copy its genetic code and reproduce itself.

The U.S. government has committed to purchasing enough pills to treat 1.7 million people, assuming the FDA authorizes the drug. Merck said it can produce pills for 10 million patients by the end of the year and has contracts with governments worldwide. The company has not announced prices.

Several other companies, including Pfizer and Roche, are studying similar drugs and could report results in the coming weeks and months.

Merck had planned to enroll more than 1,500 patients in its late-stage trial before the independent board stopped it early. The results reported Friday included patients across Latin America, Europe and Africa. Executives estimated 10% of patients studied were from the U.S.

editor's pick
COVID-19 hospitalizations spike at WHS
  • Updated

Brook Ward

The number of COVID-19 patients in Washington Health System Washington Hospital and WHS Greene on Thursday nearly reached the number of patients hospitalized last November, when the health system treated the highest number of patients suffering from the coronavirus during the pandemic.

In November, the health system reached its highest peak, with 58 COVID patients in its two hospitals. As of Thursday, the hospitals were treating 54 patients with COVID – 48 at Washington Hospital and six at WHS Greene, according to WHS CEO Brook Ward.

Ward said 83% of those patients are not vaccinated, and that they have been much sicker than patients who had received the vaccine.

“It’s concerning that we’re almost at the peak we were last year,” said Ward in a monthly video update. “But our silver lining is that we have a fair amount of people who have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine injection, first and second shots, and I think that’s helped keep these numbers low. If not for that, I’m sure we’d have a much worse situation than we have now, so I want to thank all of those individuals who got vaccinated to help keep these numbers low.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, more than 95% of counties in the United States are experiencing high rates of COVID infection, including Washington and Greene counties.

Over the last week, the positivity rate is 10.72%, and in Greene, it’s nearly 9%.

Ward said the positivity rate at WHS testing sites is 14.8%, likely because people who visit the health system site are experiencing COVID symptoms.

People who are seeking testing to return to school or work, or to travel, are driving the positivity rate down, Ward said.

“But if you take those people out, who are driving the rate lower, we have a high incident rate in our community, and that’s concerning,” he said.

The COVID-19 vaccines are keeping people safer, Ward said.

Ward also said the health system has experienced an increase in the number of people who are visiting the emergency department, which is resulting in delays.

He asked people to avoid the emergency department for non-emergencies, or if they are seeking a COVID-19 test.

Ward also said WHS, like other hospitals and other industries, has been impacted by staffing shortages, but that it has not impacted care.

“But we are being deliberate about what we schedule, particularly with surgery and other things,” said Ward.

He encouraged people to visit the health system website at whs.org/careers for job positions.

WHS is offering the Pfizer booster vaccine, recommended by the CDC for people 65 and older, those between the ages of 50 and 64 or 18 to 49 with an underlying medical condition, or those who are between 18 and 64 whose occupation places them in additional risk of COVID-19, at its walk-in clinics.

The booster vaccine is available at WHS on Tuesdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Thursdays from noon to 6 p.m., and at WHS Greene on Wednesdays from 8 a.m. to noon.

Said Ward, “Please do it; millions of doses have been give out worldwide ... it protects you and your loved ones.”

In other news, Ward noted that October marks two significant events: Domestic Violence Awareness Month and Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

One in every 4 women and 1 in every 7 men are impacted at least once in their lifetime by domestic violence. Anyone experiencing domestic violence or who knows someone who finds themselves in a domestic violence can call the Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern Pennsylvania hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 1-800-791-4000.

It also is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and women should get an annual mammogram. WHS vice president of clinical operations Terry Wiltrout is participating in the Real Men Wear Pink campaign to raise awareness.

And Oct. 23 is the 20th annual National Prescription Take-Back program. People can drop off old, used and unwanted prescription drugs at Washington Hospital between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.