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Philly takes over Convention Center mass vaccine site as FEMA withdraws and Delaware offers incentives

Cases are down as vaccinations increase. Ohio and Delaware are offering lottery prizes for the inoculated.

People get the COVID-19 vaccine at the FEMA vaccination clinic at the Philadelphia Convention Center last month. FEMA is turning over control of the operation to the city.
People get the COVID-19 vaccine at the FEMA vaccination clinic at the Philadelphia Convention Center last month. FEMA is turning over control of the operation to the city.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

With 670,000 Philadelphians fully vaccinated, FEMA is ending its role on the mass-vaccine operation in Philadelphia. And the city announced it no longer will offer weekly COVID-19 briefings.

With both Pennsylvania and New Jersey days away from lifting most restrictions, the region on Tuesday appeared to be getting ever closer to a pre-coronavirus state.

“We’re not out of the woods,” said Cheryl Bettigole, the city’s acting health commissioner. “This pandemic is still with us. But we are seeing clear improvement over the past few months with vaccination rates rising.”

Public officials continue to push initiatives to up vaccination rates.

» READ MORE: New Jersey will lift mask mandate and social distancing just in time for Memorial Day weekend

The White House touted the success of a vaccine lottery in Ohio and offered guidance on how other states and local governments can use federal funds to encourage people to get shots.

Every week for the next five weeks, one vaccinated Ohio resident will win $1 million. Days after the program was announced, Ohio saw a 55% increase in its vaccination rate among those between ages 20 and 49, according to Andy Slavitt, a senior COVID-19 adviser at the White House.

Ohio “has unlocked the secret,” Slavitt said during a news briefing Tuesday. “People do care about getting vaccinated. But it turns out they also have other things they care about.”

Delaware is hoping to encourage residents to get vaccinated by offering cash prizes — and license plates.

While car tags might not be the raw material of most people’s dreams, low-number plates are a highly prized status symbol in Delaware, which has no need for letters due to its small population. A black license plate featuring the number 20 netted over $400,000 at an auction in 2018.

Delaware announced Tuesday it would offer two low-number license plates as a grand prize to any Delawareans 18 and older vaccinated prior to June 29, as well as $302,000 in cash. Winners will be announced on June 30, and the drawings will be conducted through the Delaware Lottery.

Throughout the region, officials say, case numbers have gone down as vaccination totals have gone up.

About 44% of Philadelphians are fully vaccinated, and on Tuesday FEMA, which has been operating the mass-vaccination site at the Convention Center, turned the keys over to the city after a 12-week stint and 300,000 inoculations.

After intense demand for vaccines in the first eight weeks of the site’s operations, the city had requested that FEMA keep the Convention Center site open for an additional four weeks. That extension period ended Tuesday, and the site will reopen Thursday under the city’s control.

» READ MORE: Many pregnant workers and new mothers were left out of COVID-19 aid

Demand at the Center City site decreased, Bettigole said, as other vaccine sites opened around the city and the shots became more widely available.

Representatives for the Marines and Navy personnel who staffed the site said they were grateful for the city’s hospitality over the last 12 weeks. “I could not be prouder of the effort our unit put forth,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Caitlin Workman, the medical officer in charge of the 222-person team of Marines and sailors who distributed vaccines. “They helped make America a safer and healthier nation.”

Bettigole, who took over the city Public Health Department after the resignation of Thomas Farley, said the city now must focus on “bringing vaccines to where people are,” making vaccines more available in neighborhood clinics and pharmacies.

“We have a lot more work to do,” she said.

She said that effort is crucial in alleviating persistent racial disparities in vaccine distribution that have dogged the vaccine rollout — including at the Convention Center and another mass vaccine clinic at Esperanza in North Philadelphia.

» READ MORE: After citing privacy law, Pa. backtracks and discloses wasted vaccine details

“We know who is going to be worst hit in any bad health event. It’s not rocket science. It’s going to hit our Black residents. It’s going to hit our Latino residents. It’s going to hit our immigrants,” she said. “Figuring out — ‘How do we go right there from the beginning to make sure we’re reaching the people who are most at risk?’ — is something we have all learned from this.”

It was Bettigole’s second virtual briefing. She also announced it would be the last.

In the spring of 2020, when this all started, the city was holding briefings almost daily.

The change represents another sign of progress.