PITTSBURGH — In a press briefing on COVID-19 preparedness Tuesday, UPMC leaders provided updates on where the hospital system stands with regard to capacity, vaccinations and antibodies.

“The communities UPMC serves in Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and Ohio are experiencing the highest numbers of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations since the start of this pandemic,” said Leslie Davis, senior vice president, UPMC, and executive vice president and chief operating officer, UPMC Health Services Division.

UPMC brought in 200 nurses in the past week to provide additional staffing, as well as expanding hours of care and adding additional beds across the system, she said.

The health care system has shortened the quarantine period for its employees from 14 days to 10 and is looking to shorten it further to seven. As understanding of the virus and how to care for patients with it has expanded, the proportion of patients who are critically ill and in need of intensive care has gone down since the spring.

“Today’s COVID-19 census represents only 20% of UPMC’s overall bed capacity,” said Davis. “We are busy but not overwhelmed.”

Hospitals and skilled nursing facilities in the UPMC system are set in the near future to receive their first allocations of both the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.

“Given the robust allocation of vaccine already underway, we are optimistic we will be able to provide vaccines to our frontline health care workers, who wish to receive it, before the end of January,” said Dr. Graham Snyder, the health system’s medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology.

The vaccine will be optional for UPMC workers and the first allocation of the vaccines will not be available to the general public. The Pfizer vaccine will go to the hospitals for staff and the Moderna vaccine to the skilled nursing facilities.

“Before we give the first dose of vaccine, we will await FDA review and issuing of Emergency Use Authorizations. Until they do so, we will store the vaccines we receive,” said Snyder.

UPMC will also be performing an internal evaluation of the clinical trial data before making a decision on giving out the vaccines. Given that Pittsburgh is one of the spots used for some COVID-19 vaccine trials and some employees could participate, they have heard some participants have experienced fever, fatigue and or malaise or arm pain after vaccination, enough to miss a day or two of work.

Those symptoms are not signs of anything serious or out of the ordinary for some vaccines, rather can be indicative of their efficacy.

UPMC also recently received antibody treatments from Regeneron and Eli Lilly, which it is giving to certain patients infected with COVID-19.

“We are also developing our own antibodies ... because we think they have the potential to be much more powerful than the current therapies. Antibodies hold the promise of being curative for those who are COVID-19 positive,” said Dr. Donald Yealy, UPMC senior medical director and chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh.

Antibody treatments differ from vaccines in a number of ways, but importantly they don’t require the body to mount a response like vaccines do, which can be helpful with older and infirm patients.

“I cannot stress enough, while the ability to offer a highly effective COVID-19 vaccine is truly fantastic news, it does not mean we can stop wearing masks, distancing and washing our hands,” said Snyder. “These fundamental interventions work together with vaccines and monoclonal antibodies to end the pandemic.”

Follow staff writer Brandon Glass on Twitter @Bglass13.

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