For Indiana County residents, there is COVID-19 vaccine to be had.
Indiana Regional Medical Center this week was the latest site to announce that it would accept requests for appointments for qualifying individuals to get their vaccines.
Indiana County Emergency Management Agency Director Thomas Stutzman relayed the information at the county commissioners’ semi-monthly business meeting, in his report of his department’s daily monitoring of all phases of pandemic-related information — for vaccinations, testing programs, personal protective equipment supplies and long-term care facilities support — mainly published by Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Stutzman said ICEMA and the DOH will arrange a free COVID-19 testing program similar to one conducted in October, for drive-up testing in the parking lot near the former Bon-Ton store site at Indiana Mall, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Feb. 13 to 17.
Stutzman said a subcontractor, AMI, will be equipped to test 240 people per day at no cost.
A challenge for ICEMA, Stutzman said, is monitoring vaccination distribution because of inconsistencies and discrepancies in the information posted online by the health department.
He said he is relying on Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency for better information on vaccination sites in the county.
Although not offered in direct response to residents’ concerns, Stutzman’s information answered some questions posed to the commissioners during a round of public comment earlier in the meeting.
Allocations of vaccine to Indiana County may be undercounted, he implied. Giant Eagle supermarket has a supply, but vaccines offered by Blairsville Pharmacy “for some reason” are counted in Westmoreland County statistics, Stutzman said.
“All of that information is available on the Department of Health website under the ‘vaccine’ tab and ‘vaccination distribution list’ link,” he said.
Online maps show the vaccination sites.
County borders do not matter anyway: “You can go anywhere you want in the continental United States,” Stutzman said.
The federally funded vaccine is equally offered to residents of all counties and all states, according to Stutzman; therefore, Indiana County residents are welcome and encouraged to seek appointments for inoculations where available in neighboring areas close to their homes such as Miners Hospital in Hastings, the medical centers in Johnstown, Excela Health Latrobe Hospital, Memorial Hospital in Kittanning or Punxsutawney Area Hospital.
“Feel free to reach out and register with them,” he advised.
Further, Stutzman cautioned county residents, no one has to pay for a vaccine because they’re paid for by the government and any offer to provide a vaccination for a fee is likely a scam and not likely an actual vaccine.
Stutzman and the commissioners offered no response to a suggestion by Darcy Trunzo, of Indiana, that the county’s COVID-19 website isn’t current and that the “digital divide” prevents large numbers of rural residents from being informed because they have no internet service.
Marcia Croce charged in the public comment period that the commissioners have failed to personally return phone calls asking for information.
“You guys are public officials. You don’t get to choose who you call and who you don’t call, OK?” Croce said.
Vaccine anxiety also surfaced during public comment.
Tammy Curry, of White Township, said that county Commissioner Sherene Hess inappropriately was vaccinated at the county-owned nursing home, Communities at Indian Haven, as was publicized in a photo circulated on social media.
“It spread quickly, as did outrage and disgust,” Curry said. “Miss Hess, believing herself to be a role model to encourage others, set this up with Affinity, who manages Indian Haven.”
Curry accused Hess of jumping to the head of the line to get a vaccine that she wasn’t entitled to receive.
“Shock and outrage spread quickly as those who have been waiting patiently for their loved ones and themselves to receive their vaccine expressed disgust that a healthy woman in her early 50s used her position to receive the vaccine outside the current Phase 1A guideline,” Curry said in prepared comments. She called Hess “selfish” and charged that she broke state rules.
“You’re terribly misinformed, Miss Curry,” Hess said.
Hess said she has a medical condition, which she offered to explain privately to Curry but not in the public meeting, that increases her susceptibility to the virus and places her in the 1A priority phase.
Anne Simmons, of White Township, called Curry’s comments slanderous and commended Hess for symbolizing the county’s effort to encourage county residents to get immunized. Simmons further asked the commissioners to continue to endorse pandemic suppression measures such as wearing face masks.
Commissioner Robin Gorman, who said she didn’t fit the 1A priority group, said supported Hess’s decision “for all the right reasons to be the person to support the encouragement and (use) that public leadership position. We totally supported that.”
Gorman said Indian Haven officials did not invite her to take the vaccine.
In other business Wednesday, the commissioners:
• Extended until Dec. 31 the deadline to pay county real estate tax bills without penalty.
• Accepted thanks of Indiana Free Library Director Kate Geiger for the county’s contribution of assistance from CARES Act pandemic relief funds.
• Signed legal papers needed to allow expenditure of a $350,000 grant approved in 2020 by the Southwest Regional Commission for development of Hoodlebug Trail on the “Mile Hill” section of Route 119 in Burrell Township. County Parks and Trails Director Ed Patterson said the remainder of the project would be funded from the county’s share of Marcellus Shale Legacy Fund money.
• Accepted a grant of $135,000 from the Rights and Services Act, earmarked to the district attorney’s office to pay for victim notification and other services through Dec. 31, 2022.
• Approved the additional expenditure of $746 for lockets and door closure hardware for the future home of Indiana District Court 40-2-01 at 350 N. Fourth St.
• Approved several contracts on behalf of Indiana County Children & Youth Services for the Child Account & Profile System including program software upgrades, and accounting and profile system consulting; a HIPAA business associate agreement; and Center County Youth Services.
• Authorized Indiana County Emergency Management Agency to accept more than $78,000 from the state 911 fund to cover the county’s share of annual maintenance fees for components of emergency communication systems.
• Approved the purchase of 15 new portable radios for staff at the Indiana County Jail, 12 radios to connect to breathing apparatus for the county HAZMAT team and two mobile radios and 16 portable radios to provide encrypted communication for the county probation department, at a total cost of just more than $142,000.
“Under the state contract through municipal lease-purchase agreements with Motorola Solutions, the county would lease the radios for five years and then own them,” Stutzman said. The county’s cost then would be $31,607.23 a year beginning in Feb. 2022.