Pittsburgh Poison Center Nurses Provide Needed COVID-19 Support

By: Taylor Andres

Staff members of the Pittsburgh Poison Center at UPMC have been working to keep southwestern PA residents informed about COVID-19 through their collaboration with the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) and United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania’s PA 211 Southwest helpline.

Since March 2020, 15 Pittsburgh Poison Center nurses, all with emergency room or ICU experience, have responded to over 4,000 phone calls offering clinical insight to those seeking answers to medical questions.

A Mr. Yuk sticker marks the entrance to the Pittsburgh Poison Center at UPMC.

“As a poison center, our role is serving the community in a variety of ways, and our ability to do so became even more critical during this rapidly developing public health crisis,” explained James Lewis, who responded to calls at the Pittsburgh Poison Center. “As nurses, we have the privilege of sharing the best and worst of times with complete strangers, and being able to provide emotional support becomes as important as knowledge and skill.”

United Way’s 211 helpline has supported ACHD throughout the pandemic by answering callers’ questions about COVID-19 and assisting with vaccine appointment scheduling – in addition to their usual work to address basic needs across the region. The Pittsburgh Poison Center at UPMC’s role is answering any questions that require clinical knowledge, including how the vaccines work, their side effects and symptoms of COVID-19.

“In order to meet the broad needs that resulted from the pandemic, all branches of government, business community, foundations, community organizations and others had to work together,” said Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the Allegheny County Health Department. “We’re grateful to the Poison Center and 211 for their willingness to join us in this ‘all hands on deck’ approach. This united response is at the heart of all that is great about our region.”

“Ensuring access to the most current information is a significant part of United Way’s commitment to serving and healing our region,” shared Michele Sandoe, senior director of United Way’s PA 211 Southwest. “By connecting callers with medical questions to the Pittsburgh Poison Center, callers are getting the answers they need and the resource navigators at United Way are able to focus their efforts on addressing urgent requests for basic needs.”

Within the first weekend of triaging last March, Pittsburgh Poison Center nurses answered several hundred calls.

“While the last year has been trying for all, it’s satisfying to know we are equipped to improve the lives of those who don’t know where to turn,” said Lewis. “Information changes so frequently that it can be difficult for anyone to know what to do in their situation. Even if we don’t have the right answer, we can at least direct them to where they may find a solution. It’s been very fulfilling to serve the community daily, one call at a time.”

Call volume has varied as information about COVID-19 became more accessible, but the past month saw an uptick in calls related to COVID-19 vaccinations.

“As more members of the public receive COVID-19 immunizations, some people being vaccinated through community resources may not have a regular primary care physician to call if they have questions or concerns about side effects,” explained Dr. Amanda Korenoski, managing director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center. “We are grateful to 211 and the Allegheny County Health Department for partnering with us. They are vested in making sure we get the questions appropriate to us and helping us get answers to those who need them.”

Additional information about PA 211 Southwest is available through United Way. If you have a clinical question related to COVID-19, call 2-1-1 to be routed to the Pittsburgh Poison Center at UPMC’s COVID-19 triage line.