Laughter muffled by face masks mingled with the frigid moonlit air as they shuffled over the sidewalk slush on Cecil B. Moore Avenue, lawn chairs and long coats in tow, bracing for the grueling hours ahead.
“Good morning, good morning, how are you doing?” a woman named Pat greeted the group of 50- and 60-year-olds lined up in front of the Draught Horse pub just before 3 a.m. Saturday — a starkly different crowd than would have been outside the college bar this time last year.
But, a sign of the times, the bar was closed, set to shut down this weekend for good after two decades. And, a sign of the times, the congregation there was waiting in line in the dead of night not for drinks but for hope — a chance for the coronavirus vaccine.
“I used to go to the club and know when the clubs used to empty out,” Pat joked from behind her blue surgical face mask. “This is the after-hours hangout now.”
“We’re so blessed to be in this position,” a man next to her said. He had driven along North Broad Street three times Friday, gawking at the line wrapping four city blocks before eventually deciding to stick it out.
En masse, thousands of people waited through the night, some for 10 hours or longer, to be vaccinated by the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, the Philadelphia-based nonprofit that this weekend operated the city’s first 24-hour, walk-up mass vaccination site.
In total on Friday and Saturday, the group vaccinated more than 4,000 people. Follow-up shots will be given in late March at Deliverance Evangelistic Church on Lehigh Avenue.
The line that formed on North Broad Street led to the front doors of the Liacouras Center, the basketball pavilion where a year ago 6,604 fans watched Temple beat UConn in double overtime. Weeks after that, COVID-19 gripped Philadelphia in its clutches, and the same arena was transformed into a precautionary overflow hospital, the court staffed by military reservists and dotted with knots of oxygen tubes.
This weekend, the stands were occupied by thousands of Philadelphians, seated apart and getting their first shot of optimism in almost a year.
“This is hope, this is what we need,” said Lamont Curry, 60, of North Philadelphia, who had tears in his eyes as he waited for his vaccine. With preexisting medical conditions, he said, this was “part of saving my own life.”
The scene Friday and into Saturday was one of gratitude, but as people worried about frostbite, it was also one of desperation — a display of the lengths Americans are willing to go for a coronavirus vaccine amid a national rollout that’s lagged behind other nations. Round-the-clock vaccination sites have opened in New York, New Jersey, and Arizona, but even some 24-hour sites have required appointments, and many vaccine registries have filled within minutes of opening.
The North Philadelphia “vax-a-thon” this weekend was open to people who live in specific Philadelphia zip codes designated high-risk and who fall in “group 1B,” which includes people over 75, those with severe medical conditions, and some essential workers. About 400,000 people citywide are in the category.
Ala Stanford, the physician who helms the consortium, has said she hopes to host another 24-hour clinic. The group, which gets its vaccine supply through the city, has offered testing in hard-hit Black communities in Philadelphia for the last year and began running vaccine clinics out of local churches in January, hoping to bring racial equity to the city’s inoculation process.
While Black patients account for more than 40% of the city’s population, they had received only about 20% of doses administered throughout the city as of Friday. According to city data, white people had received 56% of the vaccine supply, and nearly half of Philadelphia’s shots had gone to people who don’t live in the city.
Black Americans are more likely than other racial groups to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19 and, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, more than half of Black Americans are skeptical of the vaccine, a sentiment rooted in part in generations of medical malpractice.
At one point early Saturday morning, a man drove by the crowd, saying out the window: “Y’all getting the vaccine? You trust it? Good luck!”
The skepticism has made Black churches and Black physicians critical to building trust, Stanford has said. It’s worked for the consortium, which has been stretched thin amid rising demand and a surge of people seeking to get the shot from outside the city. A majority of thousands of people lined up for vaccines this weekend on North Broad Street were people of color.
“I feel more comfortable because it’s a Black doctor,” said Tonja McCoy, 59, a post office worker from Germantown who joined the line just after 2 a.m. “And in the Black neighborhood, you know, it’s a lot of distrust about vaccines, or anything of that matter.”
“So with [Stanford], we trust that it’s the right thing,” added her childhood best friend, Helen Shoffner, 61. Stanford regularly visits their church, Enon Tabernacle Baptist, providing COVID-19 tests with the consortium and talking about the importance of getting vaccinated.
Steeling herself with Shoffner against the bitter night air, McCoy, who has lost loved ones to the virus this year, held a thank-you note and gift card close in her purse, planning to give them to Stanford when she made it to the front of the line. “Just something for herself, because she’s taking away from her practice, and her personal life,” she said.
At one point in the evening Friday, firetrucks rolled down North Broad Street when a small blaze broke out near the building, the result of an accidental trash fire in a sewer grate. Temperatures dipped below 30 degrees past midnight, and Salvation Army workers passed out blankets, hand warmers, cookies, and coffee.
Still, more Philadelphians got in line, armed with portable chairs and face shields, forgoing a night of comfort in exchange for peace of mind.
A 65-year-old from West Oak Lane and her mother-in-law got the shot so they might finally feel comfortable at the grocery store. A 57-year-old Marine veteran came at 2 a.m. because he works at a food pantry, face-to-face with high-risk folks. A 34-year-old bartender from Southwest Philly got in line after his shift, just wanting the vaccine “before I get COVID and find out I have something else wrong with me.”
“I never want to go through that again,” said Paula Cammilleri, 53, a nursing facility health-care worker from Northeast Philadelphia who caught COVID-19 on the job around Thanksgiving. The virus, with its fevers and aches, took her out of commission for more than a month, forcing her to miss vaccinations through work. On Saturday, she bundled up and joined the line after her night shift around 2 a.m.
“COVID is real,” she said. “I’ve seen people get it, I’ve seen people not make it, I’ve sent people to the hospital and haven’t seen them come back. It’s life-or-death.”
Fingers turned numb as the night wore on, and some prayed over the whir of traffic. Desiree Whitfield, a 55-year-old who lives in the city’s Cedarbrook section and is immunocompromised, practically preached under the flickering lights of the basketball arena, reciting the parts of Romans 8:28 that remind her: “All things work together for good.”
She uplifted her makeshift congregation, the handful of people standing around her — especially the four perfect strangers she met in line. She called them her “COVID family.”
Others, too, found strength in their fellow Philadelphians, even those separated by generations. One man walked his mother, seated in a wheelchair, past a group of people huddled together in line, draped in donated blankets. He took her to the front doors of the arena, where patients over 75 could wait in a separate, much shorter queue. “She’s 92!” he hollered to the crowd.
“Wow!” a younger man who’d been waiting 7½ hours yelled back. “God bless!”
Kimberly Roundtree, a 34-year-old from Wynnefield, donning a sparkly face mask and a leopard-print coat, came alone to wait for a shot she hoped would allow her to better care for her grandmother. There, she met Suzanne Hernandez, a 62-year-old caretaker from the Northeast who wasn’t planning to stay through the night. It seemed too daunting.
“But then we started talking,” Hernandez said.
“And,” Roundtree added, “we’re encouraging each other to stay in line.”
And after they’d waited while shivering, they went inside, where patients registered, then waited some more. Some who showed up in the daylight on Friday and watched the sun set in line were vaccinated in the arena bleachers, then walked back out through the front doors of the Liacouras Center and into the dark.
It was the wee hours of the morning when a guard flung open the doors for John Rush, a 67-year-old from North Philly who got his first dose and hoped to catch the bus back home.
As he left the warmth of the arena, he stepped out onto North Broad Street, exhaled behind his mask, and nodded: “Good morning.”
Staff writer Ellie Rushing and photojournalist Tyger Williams contributed to this article.