Essential workers and people 75 and older in Philadelphia could begin receiving the coronavirus vaccine later this month, city officials announced Tuesday, releasing guidelines that provided the first clear information for hundreds of thousands of residents — from teachers to public transit drivers to grocery clerks — about when they might get the long-awaited shots.
The city’s second stage of vaccine distribution will also include people with high-risk medical conditions and people living in group facilities and jails. It could begin as soon as Jan. 25, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said, but the city has not yet detailed how eligible people will register for appointments or get the shots.
In the rest of the state, people 65 and older may be in the next group for vaccine distribution, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine said after the federal government on Tuesday changed its guidance about the age cutoff. Levine said the state still needed to review the new recommendation but planned to implement it.
The state’s next vaccine group will also include essential workers. It’s not clear when that stage will begin, though Levine has said “soon.”
The new federal plan also asks states to vaccinate any adult with preexisting health conditions next, not just those over 65, which would change the state’s current plan.
And it will likely also speed up the delivery of vaccine: The United States now plans to stop storing vaccine meant for second doses of the two-part shots and distribute it all instead, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced Tuesday. That will have the effect of doubling the national vaccine supply.
City officials could not say Tuesday whether the new federal recommendation would change their plans for vaccinating seniors. Philadelphia is one of a few cities nationwide managing its vaccinations independently.
“This is a wholesale change out of the blue after months of planning,” said health department spokesperson James Garrow. “It’s going to take a little bit to figure out how this impacts the multiple avenues of vaccine distribution and changes to our allocations and what administration looks like.”
The city will also allow indoor restaurant dining and theaters to reopen on Saturday with reduced capacity, Farley announced.
And Mayor Jim Kenney said he hopes the Philadelphia School District will resume in-person instruction this spring after teachers are vaccinated, saying it would be “a win-win for everybody” to reopen schools before the academic year ends.
While city officials said the holiday-related increase in COVID-19 infections should subside next week — and new case rates have fallen by 33% since Nov. 20, when the city implemented tighter restrictions — Farley warned that the rates will still remain high through the winter months.
In spite of that, the city will allow restaurants to resume indoor dining, with tables limited to four people from the same household, and allow theaters to operate at 10% capacity. Colleges can resume in-person instruction, though catered events and social gatherings are prohibited. And some library locations will reopen for in-person service next week.
Officials cautioned that residents must continue to wear masks and practice social distancing. Philadelphia on Tuesday reported 637 newly confirmed coronavirus cases and 37 deaths. Pennsylvania reported 7,275 cases and 227 deaths. New Jersey reported 4,219 cases and 108 deaths.
A spokesperson for the New Jersey Health Department said that officials were considering the new federal guidance and that information about who is eligible in the state’s second phase of vaccine distribution would be “forthcoming.”
About 400,000 people in Philadelphia are estimated to be a part of the next group to be inoculated, also known as phase 1B under the federal vaccination plan.
The policy announced Tuesday promises relief to people working and living in prisons, drug and alcohol treatment centers, congregant housing for the homeless, and psychiatric facilities. And, for the first time, vaccine doses will be available for people who have continued working in person in order to keep the city of 1.5 million running.
First responders, police, firefighters, teachers, restaurant staff, child care providers, retail workers at big box stores and gas stations, and public transit operators are among those who will be eligible.
Other essential workers categorized as having a lower risk of exposure will be able to get vaccinated in the third phase. That includes sanitation workers, maintenance and janitorial workers, and utility workers.
The city’s priorities were designed to address inequities that have made people of color particularly vulnerable to the worst consequences of COVID-19 infection due to systemic bias and lack of health-care access, health officials said. In particular, the city hoped to address the disparity by including all adults with certain high-risk medical conditions in the second stage.
“These medical conditions are common in low-income populations and minority populations,” Farley said.
Statewide, people 16 to 64 with high-risk conditions won’t be eligible until the third phase, although that could change if the state follows the new federal guidelines. The city’s second phase differs slightly from the state’s in other ways, too: Clergy and postal workers, for instance, are included in the state’s second phase but not the city’s; food service workers are in the city’s second phase but the state’s third.
The details of each plan are available online. Nationwide, the vaccine is being distributed in phases because of limited supply. The vaccine is free for everyone, and all who want it will eventually be able to get it, the U.S. has said.
Still, some details are lacking: Neither the city nor the state has yet established a clear registration process, and health-care officials have said they don’t have the capacity to staff public vaccine clinics.
“There’s no guidance around that,” said Steven Sivak, president of Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. “Once that happens we’re going to have to figure out how to vaccinate those folks.”
People may have access to doses at some of the same places where they can get the annual flu vaccine, he said, including hospitals, clinics, large employers’ health centers, and pharmacies. The city will also conduct on-site vaccination at group settings, and anticipates establishing more public vaccination centers like the one at the Philadelphia Convention Center. Physicians’ offices may be able to provide doses, depending on their ability to store the vaccine; some city hospitals have said they will have their own vaccine registration portals.
Just over a third received by the state has been reported as administered in first doses. That is slightly higher than the national rate, but state officials have vowed to speed up the process after a slow rollout.
The vaccine, Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday, is “only going to be effective if Pennsylvanians actually get vaccinated. And we should get vaccinated because these vaccines are both safe and highly effective. It’s what’s going to take us through this.”
The state is trying to balance the goals of speedy vaccine distribution; reaching the most at-risk populations first; and making sure recipients get their second doses on time, Levine said.
She said she planned to review the new federal plan announced by Azar. It marks a change from the previous federal guidelines that advised providers to vaccinate people 75 and older in phase 1B, which the state was following.
Levine said the states would be depending upon the federal government — with its “granular knowledge of the supply chain, which the states don’t have” — to make sure second doses will be available when needed. Azar told ABC’s Good Morning America that vaccine manufacturing is now predictable enough that the U.S. could ensure that.
Wolf dispelled misinformation about the vaccine Tuesday, including the myth that vaccines can give recipients the coronavirus, saying potential temporary post-vaccination symptoms, such as muscle aches, fatigue, joint pain, or low-grade fever, are signs that the vaccine is working like “a physical trainer for your immune system.”
“If you hear a rumor about COVID-19 from a friend, [or] see something online that concerns you, take a few minutes to verify the information before you get too worried about it,” he said.