The process ran like clockwork as Philadelphia teachers began receiving coronavirus vaccinations on Monday morning — and it was surprisingly emotional.
“People were in tears; it was so joyful,” said Stephanie Andrewlevich, the principal of Mitchell Elementary in Southwest Philadelphia, who got her first dose at 9:40 a.m. at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“They said, ‘We’ve been waiting for this moment for a year, to get you vaccinated and back in front of kids,’ ” said Andrewlevich, who was able to get the shot at CHOP along with other employees who work in school buildings or teach prekindergarten through second grade. (A possible reopening of those grades in the city School District on March 1 is being negotiated.) “It was like Christmas morning.”
Across the nation, that growing hope mingled with deep grief as the U.S. marked 500,000 coronavirus-related deaths on Monday. The staggering toll means more Americans have died after catching COVID-19 than all those who died in battle in World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War combined.
Those lost include more than 23,000 Pennsylvanians and 20,000 New Jerseyans, with 2,000 more when deaths labeled as probable coronavirus cases by New Jersey are included. Combined, the two states, New York, Delaware, and Maryland account for nearly 91,000 of the country’s confirmed deaths.
“These are statistics, but they’re people, they’re souls — they’re moms and dads and aunties and uncles and grandmoms and even children,” said Sharrelle Barber, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University. “Because of our shared humanity, it’s important not to overlook that.”
Accounting for equity
The Philadelphia region accounts for about 10,000 — or one in 50 — of the nation’s deaths. More than 3,000 city residents have died.
A disproportionate number of the deaths, data show, have been among communities of color. In Philadelphia, Black and Latino residents are hospitalized for COVID-19 at a higher rate than their white counterparts, particularly those 75 and older.
Black Philadelphians have died of the virus at a higher rate than white residents, and while the virus is risky for all adults over 75, it’s particularly deadly for nonwhite Philadelphians, according to statistics from the city.
Researchers who study health disparities say the gap is crucial to acknowledge as the country struggles to move forward with vaccine distribution. The next step, said Barber, who studies how structural racism affects health, is to work to dismantle the social inequities that have contributed to worse outcomes for people of color.
She said the federal government, as well as cities like Philadelphia, must address issues like residential segregation, which has long been shown to impact health, as well as bias and discrimination in the health-care system.
“Philly has to ask itself: How did we get to where we are as a city, to see such devastating inequities?” Barber said. “I would hope we would see these deaths, the disproportionate impact, as an opportunity to do that critical self-reflection.”
Gov. Tom Wolf said Monday that the state needs to improve the distribution of COVID-19 shots in communities of color, again saying Pennsylvania is doing “an OK job” at vaccinating residents but must do better.
City officials said they are paying close attention to racial data as they administer the vaccine and are working on outreach to vulnerable communities. On Monday, Mayor Jim Kenney endorsed a new long-term transit plan from SEPTA, saying on Twitter that investing in public transit was one piece of addressing “the systemic racial disparities among our residents” and recovering from the pandemic-induced economic crisis.
Meanwhile, a Philadelphia City Council committee advanced a $50 million budget transfer ordinance Monday to help pay for the ongoing response to the pandemic.
The money would go to the Managing Director’s Office budget to cover expenses such as personal protective equipment, quarantine and isolation centers, and food access centers, Budget Director Marisa Waxman told Council’s Appropriations Committee.
Officials said last week that they are facing a $450 million budget hole for the fiscal year that begins in July.
The committee approved the ordinance with only Councilmember Allan Domb voting against it; he said Kenney’s administration had not provided specifics about how the money would be used. Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said she did not want to hold up much-needed funding, but would work to get questions answered before a full Council vote on the spending.
Wolf, too, talked funding Monday, again calling for a tax on natural gas extraction as he touted a “Back to Work PA” proposal that would pay for programs to train jobless workers, close the digital divide, attract manufacturing firms, and help communities expand their tax bases.
He proposed using the severance tax to bring in about $300 million a year, which would allow the state to take out a $3 billion bond to spend on the workforce development programs. He has unsuccessfully proposed the severance tax in previous budgets.
His plan comes as Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate remains above pre-pandemic levels and businesses continue to lay off workers in high numbers.
Bringing back some fans
New Jersey will allow a limited number of people back into stadiums and will increase capacity permitted in houses of worship, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday.
He also said up to two parents or guardians of each college athlete on a team are now permitted to watch sports events in person, something he recently OKd for youth athletes.
As of Monday, houses of worship in New Jersey can go from operating at 35% to 50% capacity. Stadiums, arenas, and other indoor venues with 5,000 or more seats can open at 10% capacity starting March 1.
The move will allow a small number of fans to watch Seton Hall and New Jersey Devils games at the Prudential Center in Newark.
“Should the [COVID-19] numbers we track every day continue to go down, we hope and expect to be able to raise these capacity limits as we approach the summer,” Murphy said.
Staff writers Christian Hetrick, Allison Steele, Rob Tornoe, and Laura McCrystal contributed to this article, along with the Associated Press.