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Pa. Congress members seek White House help to keep Philly’s largest vaccine provider open

If the federally run mass clinic at the Pennsylvania Convention Center closes, the city will lose access to about 42,000 doses per week.

A large crowd gathers on Race St. at N. 12th waiting to get inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center for the FEMA mass vaccination clinic last month.
A large crowd gathers on Race St. at N. 12th waiting to get inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center for the FEMA mass vaccination clinic last month.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

A U.S. senator and three members of Congress on Thursday urged the White House to keep open Philadelphia’s mass vaccination clinic at the Convention Center, saying the city’s inoculation efforts depend on the tens of thousands of doses administered there every week.

The mass clinic, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is scheduled to end its eight-week pilot April 26. With about 6,000 shots administered a day, the clinic is the largest single vaccine provider in Philadelphia.

Shutting down the clinic “would take vaccines away from the city’s efforts to target underserved areas and populations, many of whom are not being well-served by other avenues to get vaccinated,” according to the letter signed by the legislators to Jeffrey Zients, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator.

Reps Dwight Evans, Mary Gay Scanlon, and Brendan Boyle, as well as Sen. Bob Casey, all Democrats, signed the letter.

“Our request would help achieve goals we share with the Biden-Harris administration: crushing the virus and helping people get back to normal life,” Evans said in a statement Thursday. “I’m looking forward to the administration’s response.”

The White House has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Philadelphia’s health commissioner, Thomas Farley, wants the Center City site to stay open and said he is in discussions with FEMA. The federal agency has offered to continue supplying personnel to run the site for an additional four weeks, the letter stated, but only if the city provides vaccines. The doses available at the site now are in addition to the city’s vaccine allotment.

Increasingly, Philadelphia is making it easier for people to get doses close to home through smaller neighborhood clinics by providers like city health centers, pharmacies, and hospitals to complement the Convention Center’s supply. Allocating its own supply of doses to the Convention Center would take away from Philadelphia’s ability to provide doses in other parts of the city.

“The City cannot support allocating 42,000 doses per week to this site,” said James Garrow, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, “as our primary goal is to make vaccine more readily available in the various communities throughout the city.”

The FEMA-run site has been a boon to the city’s vaccination efforts, but public health officials have said it is not a panacea to the problem of getting doses to everyone who needs them. People in many of the city’s neighborhoods have shown reluctance to travel to Center City to wait in line for a shot. And the site’s reliance on digital registration has meant people without internet access have been left behind.

The city has made it easier for people in under-vaccinated zip codes, often poor communities of color, to get shots at the Convention Center without appointments, but the majority of the site’s shots continue to go to white recipients.

FEMA is participating in a new mass clinic in North Philadelphia opening Friday that will offer up to 2,500 doses a day, but the federal agency is not supplying those shots, Garrow said.

“FEMA is actively planning with the City of Philadelphia and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in how best to support additional requests for federal assistance,” the agency said Wednesday in response to questions about its plans in Philadelphia.

FEMA has not yet responded to a request for comment on the letter to the White House.

The city has until April 13 to decide whether it will allocate doses from its own supply to the Convention Center site, according to the letter, which requested the deadline be extended to April 21 if FEMA cannot commit to continuing to supply doses.

“This will allow the city additional time to try to identify how to aggregate the additional doses required to keep the FEMA site running,” the letter stated, “while meeting its commitment to providing equitable access to vaccine appointments.”