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Philly Black doctors clinic outpaced the city in vaccinating Black residents, but group says there’s ‘room for improvement’

People waited for hours at Philadelphia's first walk-up vaccination clinic. The consortium hopes more collaboration will lead to shorter lines at future sites.

Elizabeth Stewart (left), 75, Joyce Turner, and her husband, Willis Turner, waiting to receive their vaccinations from Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium at Temple's Liacouras Center on Saturday.
Elizabeth Stewart (left), 75, Joyce Turner, and her husband, Willis Turner, waiting to receive their vaccinations from Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium at Temple's Liacouras Center on Saturday.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

As the clock passed noon on Saturday, and the once hours-long line of Philadelphians eager for the coronavirus vaccine dwindled to a few people, Ala Stanford looked around the Liacouras Center, overwhelmed with joy and exhaustion.

“We did it,” the physician said to herself.

Over 24 hours, Stanford and the group of health-care providers at the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium vaccinated nearly 4,000 people, on their own surpassing the city’s daily vaccination average this month of 3,500 first doses per day. And three out of four Philadelphians vaccinated at the city’s first round-the-clock walk-up site were people of color — a particularly notable number in a city where 55% of people who have received the vaccine are white, even though they make up just 40% of residents.

“The end goal was for everybody in line to get vaccinated, and they did,” said Stanford. “From that perspective, I would call it a success, but room for improvement.”

Stanford said the biggest setback was that before the consortium even opened the doors for Friday’s first-come, first-serve clinic, 1,500 people were already in line, some for hours as temperatures dipped below freezing.

» READ MORE: In the middle of the night on a frigid North Philly sidewalk, coronavirus vaccine desperation turned to hope

“Even though we were [vaccinating] over 200 an hour, it didn’t matter because we started in the hole,” she said.

Stanford and the consortium’s about 100 workers ran the site — open to elderly Philadelphians and those in select “hardest hit” zip codes — without outside help from the city. Attempting to mitigate the massive crowds in freezing weather, the group made adjustments — like bringing elderly and sick people inside the stadium — but as the line grew, it became more difficult to catch up or shift plans. At times, the line extended eight blocks, wrapping around Temple University’s Liacouras Center and then some. Still, no one who waited was turned away, Stanford said.

“There was no downtime till we said no more, we’re done,” Stanford said.

The consortium started the day with about 3,000 doses, but the city ended up delivering about 1,000 more as the group began running low early Saturday. These doses were transferred from other clinics, which the Department of Public Health would not specify, but a spokesperson said “no other clinic’s ability to function or open was impacted by these requests.”

In total, approximately 61% of people vaccinated were African American, 6% Asian, 4% Latino, 25% white, and 4% not listed.

On Monday, Stanford met with Temple officials and city agencies, including the mayor’s office, Office of Emergency Management, and the Fire Department, over Zoom to discuss how the groups could collaborate to make future 24-hour vaccination sites, and the sites to get those 4,000 people their second doses, run more smoothly.

The city’s Department of Public Health has partnered with a network of vaccine administrators that includes BDCC, as well as pharmacies, hospitals, and other operators. For privately run clinics, the department allocates vaccines to the providers, but doesn’t manage or coordinate on-site operations.

Stanford said she doesn’t plan to host another 24-hour site without more collaboration from the city. She said she hopes to at least double staffing — which could dramatically cut the wait — at future clinics, and partner with the city and other local vaccine distributors.

“The more cohesive we are and the more collaborative we are, the better it can be,” she said.

The consortium is also considering other solutions, she said, like offering second doses over several days, hosting clinics on warmer days, or having physicians constantly surveying the line.

James Garrow, spokesperson for Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health, said no official future partnerships with BDCC have been set, but the department is in regular communication with Stanford.

On Tuesday, Mayor Jim Kenney acknowledged that the weather posed a problem for people waiting in line, and that the city is “already in conversations with them on how we can keep that from happening again.”

But, he said, “don’t lose sight of the fact that it was a very successful event.”

At-large Councilperson Kendra Brooks said the city should look to BDCC for guidance on how to prioritize vaccinating residents of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, and that the turnout demonstrates an “urgent need” to expand neighborhood-based vaccination sites.

» READ MORE: Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium to tighten requirements around vaccine distribution

She said the city could improve access by taking steps like providing heated waiting areas, ensuring bathroom access, partnering with churches, and establishing call-in numbers to ease registration.

Keon L. Gilbert, founding codirector of the Institute for Healing Justice and Equity at Saint Louis University, praised the BDCC’s zip code-based approach. He said it’s effective for making sure the vaccine is allocated to those who need it the most, and providing easy access by hosting the walk-up event in the community it’s targeting.

More people are likely to get vaccinated, Gilbert said, “the more we remove some of these things that create more challenges for people to access them in particular sites.”

In Philadelphia, just 53% of the city’s vaccine has gone to city residents, officials said last week. Nationwide, people — often white and more affluent — have crossed state and county lines into communities of color for a shot, Gilbert said.

The Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium — which has sought to address coronavirus vaccine and testing inequity in Black communities, a racial group more likely to be hospitalized or die from the virus — had to tighten its criteria for vaccination clinics after Stanford noticed a spike in patients traveling to her sites from outside the community.

More than half of Black Americans are skeptical of receiving the vaccine, a sentiment rooted in part in generations of medical malpractice, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center. Because of this, Gilbert said hearing stories from “neighbors, church members, people you’re in a fraternity or sorority with” about getting vaccinated are more important for many than messages from doctors or officials.

The BDCC’s first-come, first-served approach, rather than scheduled appointments, Gilbert said, could engender trust as people tell their friends and family their experiences, and accompany them to clinics.

But the turnout at the Liacouras Center, Brooks noted, showed “there is clearly great demand across the city from communities of color who want to protect themselves and their families from the virus.”

Desiree Whitfield, 55, who has lupus and is immunocompromised, said she was “proud” to have waited more than eight hours to be vaccinated by Stanford’s group.

“There was a time when the city didn’t care,” said Whitfield, of the city’s Cedarbrook section. “Dr. Ala Stanford left her practice and stood up for the Black and brown community.”