From her second-floor apartment at Emlen Arms, Carolyn Dobey grew worried watching news reports and hearing from friends about hours-long wait times at coronavirus vaccination clinics.
“A lot of people, they’re on crutches, they’re in wheelchairs, they can’t get out,” said the 80-year-old resident of the senior apartment building in West Mount Airy. “Like me, I had a knee replacement. … I ain’t going in no line.”
So when she heard she could get the vaccine from inside her Philadelphia Housing Authority building — her home of 24 years — Dobey jumped at the chance. On Monday, after receiving her second Pfizer dose after just a 30-minute wait in her building’s community room-turned-vaccine clinic, Dobey’s eyes flashed from behind her white KN95 face mask.
“I feel more safer, and I feel more at ease, and I’m not worried about catching nothing,” she said. Though her postvaccination plans don’t involve traveling to visit her family in South Carolina or stopping use of her face mask just yet, a taste of freedom and celebration were in order.
“I plan to go get me a jacket and go outside,” she said, surveying the sunny spring day.
Dobey was vaccinated through a partnership by PHA and Temple University’s College of Public Health, which over the last month, has administered shots to more than 650 low-income residents at 13 senior affordable housing sites. The housing authority is considering expanding the partnership’s efforts to other locations.
The outreach is one of several mobile coronavirus vaccine clinic efforts amping up across the city the past few weeks, with health-care groups and hospitals assembling teams to reach some of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable residents, particularly seniors, directly in their homes — something that experts say could change the game for equitable access to the vaccine.
The teams of nurses, physicians, pharmacists, and students are traveling to public and private senior housing complexes, setting up clinics in complex lobbies and community rooms, and even responding directly to the individual residences of homebound seniors. At the PHA sites, a spokesperson said, staff and residents go door-to-door multiple times, discussing possible vaccine concerns and making sure those who want a shot get one.
It’s a time-intensive effort compared to the mass vaccine sites, but it eliminates the internet, transportation, and communication barriers, and cuts down the competitive public frenzy around booking appointments.
“It takes a lot of time,” said Nina O’Connor, chief medical officer of Penn Medicine at Home. “But it’s a really important supplement to the high-volume strategies.”
“This is how we are going to catch these other populations to make sure the vaccination is equitable,” she said.
It’s unclear how many mobile units are operating in the city — a spokesperson for the Department of Public Health said it does not coordinate or track these efforts.
As of last week, city data show that 43.7% of residents age 75 and older have been vaccinated, while equity remains a struggle — 26.2% of white residents have been vaccinated, while 13.6% of Black residents have, despite making up more than 40% of the city’s population.
More mobile clinics
Many health-care groups said they identified a need from their patients and communities and launched the mobile sites independently, not through a larger city initiative. The city has said it’s working with the Philadelphia Fire Department to plan for paramedics and EMS workers to vaccinate homebound residents.
On March 15, a group of Penn Medicine health-care workers began visiting senior public housing complexes across West Philadelphia, and in the first week, across four locations, gave 380 people the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, said O’Connor. Three more complexes are scheduled for this week, and eight more are in the works, she said.
Residents’ appreciation has been immense, she said. They are often lined up in the hallway before the station is even set up, she said.
If a resident cannot come into the lobby, a nurse will bring the vaccine directly to the apartment. The group has also vaccinated residents’ home health aides on site. O’Connor estimated that about 80% of seniors reached were Black.
Penn Medicine at Home, as well as the Family Practice and Counseling Network and Oak Street Health, have also formed teams to vaccinate homebound patients. Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium launched a team to do this for homebound Philadelphians age 65 and up, with a goal of vaccinating 500 people a week. Those in need of services can email email@example.com.
Fishtown-based Centennial Pharmacy has also been doing mobile outreach, setting up free clinics at lobbies senior housing and essential businesses like restaurants, said pharmacy owner Lindsay Dymnowski. Complexes interested in being visited by the group can fill out a form.
Rite Aid is also beginning to host remote clinics, a spokesperson said.
Philadelphia’s collar counties, too, are bringing shots to their residents. Montgomery County has a small, one-van mobile unit that launched earlier this month, and has vaccinated 618 residents of senior living facilities. Chester County has two mobile units to vaccinate homebound and homeless residents, as well as people with transportation limitations.
‘Let’s bring vaccine to them’
Oak Street Health, which provides primary care to people on Medicare, also runs nine community health centers — with a tenth opening in South Philadelphia next week — which have vaccinated more than 8,000 people, 93% of whom are people of color, said Executive Medical Director Marisa Rogers.
As seen through the use of churches to reach Black Philadelphians, these hyper-local vaccination sites are key to trust and accessibility, which is crucial to distribution, said Esther Chernak, a physician and director of Drexel University’s Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication. Those efforts should include telephone call centers, outreach to community leaders, and door-to-door vaccine administration, she said.
“Let’s bring vaccine to them,” she said.
The limited number of vaccine providers, and a lack of communication about how to get them, has contributed to a feeding frenzy atmosphere when doses become available. That means that Philadelphia’s elderly population — which is larger, poorer, and more diverse than most cities — is often out of luck.
At Emlen Arms Monday afternoon, fifth-floor resident Terrance Bellows sat on a sofa, kicking his feet in the air in triumph moments after becoming fully vaccinated.
The lively 63-year-old former boxer said he had tried multiple times — unsuccessfully — to snag an appointment elsewhere. With doses available in his building, Bellows said he made sure he was first in line for the initial shot. On Monday, he was fourth.
“I wasn’t going to miss it,” he said. “I feel good. I just feel like I’m reborn.”
Staff writers Jason Laughlin and Anna Orso contributed to this article.