As Philadelphia’s vaccination rate slowly increased, so did the racial gap. Then FEMA opened a mass inoculation site at the Convention Center.
And the doubling of daily shots also brought a sharp rise in the racial disparity of who’s getting them.
Before the FEMA site opened two weeks ago, 11.9% of white residents had been vaccinated, compared with the 6.4% of Black residents, according to city data released Monday.
In just two weeks, that gap of 5.5 percentage points nearly doubled to 10.5 points. The FEMA site fueled a spike in the white vaccination rate, which grew to 21.9% compared with 11.4% for Black residents.
Asian residents’ vaccination rates also increased significantly in those first two weeks. The rates for Hispanic residents grew, too, but not as quickly. As of last week, the most recent data available, the largest disparity was the 13.4-point gap between the 21.9% of white Philadelphians vaccinated and 8.5% of Hispanic residents.
City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Tuesday that he’s “very concerned” about the growing racial gaps in vaccine distribution, and half of the Convention Center’s 6,000 daily vaccines would be reserved as new walk-in slots for residents from underserved zip codes.
Starting Wednesday, eligible residents from 22 majority-Black zip codes could show up without an appointment. Proof of residency is required. That system will remain in place for six days, then the site will only administer second doses for the next three weeks. The change is an effort to address inequities at the Convention Center site, which used a scheduling system that allowed ineligible people to make appointments. In its first two weeks, 53.5% of vaccines went to white recipients, and 52% to people under the age of 45.
Black and brown communities have disproportionately suffered the pandemic’s worst effects from the start. As vaccines rolled out, it quickly became clear that in Philadelphia — a racially and ethnically diverse city in which non-Hispanic white residents make up only about one-third of the population — white people were receiving a disproportionately high share of doses.
Racial inequity in vaccine distribution is a nationwide problem, and not unique to Philadelphia. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has cited it as a priority for weeks. Efforts include opening city-run clinics in underserved neighborhoods — including one that opened Wednesday in South Philadelphia — and encouraging other vaccine providers to focus on equity.
“The city will not be satisfied with our vaccination program until the administration rates accurately reflect our diverse population,” said Health Department spokesperson James Garrow. “We remain committed to improving equity and have been consistently adapting our approach as vaccine supply increases.”
When the administration picked the Convention Center for the federal government-run clinic, officials cited racial equity as a reason. They rejected calls from City Council to put the site at the South Philadelphia stadium complex, saying it’s not accessible to all residents and would attract people from nearby counties.
But in its first week, only 13% of the Convention Center’s doses went to Black recipients, compared with 30% for the rest of the city’s providers. White, Asian, and Hispanic residents all received greater shares of vaccines at the Convention Center than across the rest of the city’s locations.
City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who represents West Philadelphia, said the data indicate the city needs to rethink its approach.
”Clearly we have to pivot because the data is showing us we’re not getting where we need to be,” she said. “The phone calls are good, the walk-ups are good, but do we need to switch to a more mobile system? … We should be trying to get into neighborhoods.”
That could help reach some Philadelphians who find the Center City site too difficult to access.
“I can’t stand out there with my condition in extreme weather trying to get a vaccination,” said Chantele Barnes, who has heart disease and said both her job as a financial adviser and her health made it hard to go downtown for a shot.
Instead, Barnes, who is Black, received her first shot Tuesday at a Northwest Philadelphia church.
For others, the walk-in option proved to be a game-changer.
Selina Brinkley had been trying to get the coronavirus vaccine for weeks. But every time the city emailed a link for appointments at the Convention Center, the spots filled up before Brinkley, who is Black and lives in North Philadelphia, could get a slot.
“It’s a good thing they’re doing this,” Brinkley said while waiting on a short walk-in line at the Convention Center on Wednesday morning. “They need to make it a little easier. It’s hard for a lot of people who want to get it.”
Less than an hour later, Brinkley, 41, got her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
On Wednesday, staffers screened people with appointments into one line and directed those without appointments into another line after verifying they live in one of the 22 zip codes.
Gauthier and other lawmakers said they’d like to see the city work more closely with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, which receives vaccinations from the city and distributes them in majority-Black neighborhoods.
Ala Stanford, the group’s founder, was pleased to see the city mirror her walk-in model at the Convention Center. Stanford eliminated online registration earlier this month and now only does walk-in clinics, for which residents must be from the hardest-hit zip codes. Online registration was a barrier for many residents, Stanford said.
“One elderly woman said to me she used all of her [cell phone] data registering on all these different sites,” Stanford said. “So she had to wait another several weeks before she could use her phone again.”
The consortium now vaccinates about 1,000 people per day, Stanford said. As of March 7, the latest date for which the city has reported demographic data, about 70% of the group’s doses had gone to Black people.
“It has to be intentional and part of the reason why we have been so successful is it was always our intent,” she said of inoculating Black and brown residents. “When you’re playing catch-up, you’re always catching up.”
Jen Caudle said she — as a Black woman, family physician, and professor at Rowan University’s School of Osteopathic Medicine — wished there was more recognition of wider societal inequities, including in health care, that were so clearly exposed by the pandemic.
“I’m appalled, I’m disappointed, but unfortunately, I’m not surprised. … This is what so many of us were concerned about, and we warned about this,” Caudle said.
Caudle said those who blame vaccine hesitancy too often miss the bigger challenges of access and outreach. The data show Black recipients make up a larger share of vaccinations at other providers than at the FEMA site, meaning hesitancy doesn’t explain the size of the gaps.
“There is some hesitancy for some African Americans, but it’s not all, and there is vaccine hesitancy among people who aren’t Black,” she said. “So I want to be very clear: Black people, we’re not the reason we’re not being vaccinated. Black people cannot be blamed for … lack of equitable access to the vaccine.”
Farley said the city will promote the new Convention Center walk-ins through text messages, robo calls, and by partnering with community organizations that can give residents transit passes to get to Center City. And officials hope the federal government will open another vaccination site in Philadelphia.
City health officials also met with community leaders last week to ask for help in reaching underserved communities, he said.
”The message that came out of that the most was to make more vaccination available closer to people’s homes,” Farley said.
Staff writer Jason Laughlin contributed to this article.