Older Philadelphians will soon have more options for getting COVID-19 shots, but those who are unable to leave their homes may, for now, have to rely on vaccination of their caregivers for protection.
By next week, Rite Aid and ShopRite pharmacists in the city will transition from vaccinating only essential health-care workers to including those 75 and older, Caroline Johnson, the former deputy health commissioner, said in an interview Friday.
Johnson, who resigned after the interview in the wake of the controversy surrounding a vaccine site operated by Philly Fighting COVID, said all Philadelphia residents can now sign up at the city’s vaccine notification website. They will be told when the pharmacies are ready for their group and sent links to make appointments. Seniors without internet access can also call a hotline at (215) 685-5488, where staffers should be able to help elders make appointments, Johnson said.
The city is getting about 20,000 doses of vaccine each week through the end of February. There are about 91,000 Philadelphians who are 75 and up. (Unlike surrounding counties, the city has not yet opened vaccination to healthy people aged 65 through 74.) The city is continuing to vaccinate police and fire personnel and will add teachers in a few weeks, so seniors should expect competition. “As you can imagine, what happens is that every appointment gets taken,” Johnson said.
CVS, which is still vaccinating people who live in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, expects to begin vaccinating the general public in its nearly 10,000 pharmacies in April or May, said Matt Blanchette, manager of retail communications for CVS Pharmacy. CVS ultimately can give 20 to 25 million shots per month if it can acquire that many doses, he said.
Walgreens, which is also part of the federal program to vaccinate residents of care homes, is already vaccinating seniors at its stores in 12 states, including Delaware. It also has offered some off-site clinics. A spokesperson did not respond to a question about when it likely would start giving shots at stores in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but said shots will be available in some Philadelphia stores starting Feb. 5.
In Philadelphia, Federally Qualified Health Centers will also begin calling their older patients and those with serious underlying medical conditions, Johnson said. Area hospitals have begun notifying eligible patients that they can make appointments at hospital vaccination clinics.
Johnson said the city also has a mobile vaccination strike team that will now be able to transition to seniors in low-income apartment buildings. Operators of such housing can contact the city about vaccination at firstname.lastname@example.org. (That email address is not for the general public.)
Companies that operate more upscale independent living facilities will need to contract separately with pharmacies for on-site vaccination, Johnson said.
The city, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey have no plan yet for getting shots to seniors who are too frail to leave their homes.
“They’re our toughest problem of all,” Johnson said. “We are not prepared to go house-to-house yet because of the huge resources of doing such a thing.” She hopes that home-care nurses will eventually be able to give vaccines; currently approved vaccines require delicate handling and aren’t appropriate for single use. The city is working with the Philadelphia Housing Authority and Philadelphia Corporation for Aging to develop plans.
Many homebound seniors likely have home health aides or family caregivers.
Barry Ciccocioppo, COVID press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said the state includes “unpaid caregivers” among those now eligible to receive vaccine. Jim Garrow, spokesperson for the Philadelphia Health Department, said its list of eligible health workers does not specify whether they are paid or unpaid.
Ciccocioppo said workers who answer the state Health Department’s toll-free hotline — 877-PA-HEALTH — can guide older people who lack internet access through the process of finding a vaccine provider. The hotline staff can’t make appointments, but can give callers the contact information they need to make an appointment.
The state, he said, is working with Area Agencies on Aging to figure out how to vaccinate older residents who live outside of traditional nursing and long-term care facilities.
Asked about vaccinating seniors who live independently in retirement communities or apartments, or people who are homebound, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Health said: “Vaccine supply is limited at this time. As additional vaccines are approved for use and supply increases, mobile options to reach vulnerable individuals will be incorporated in our distribution efforts.”
New Jersey’s COVID-19 vaccine hotline number is (855) 568-0545. Workers can help callers know if they are currently eligible for a vaccination, preregister for the vaccine, and help them identify locations nearest to them where they can get vaccinated.