Rite Aid is a top distributor of Philadelphia’s COVID-19 vaccine doses — and it’s been giving them overwhelmingly to white people.
The pharmacy chain is the second-largest provider of vaccines allocated to Philadelphia, a racially diverse city where non-Hispanic whites make up just one-third of residents and where communities of color have disproportionately suffered the pandemic’s devastating impacts.
But almost 87% of Rite Aid’s doses went to white recipients, while just 4% went to Black ones, according to new city data on vaccine providers. The preliminary data show Rite Aid gave 26,988 vaccine doses to white people and 1,288 to Black people as of late February.
For every vaccine dose Rite Aid gave a Black person, it gave 21 vaccine doses to white ones.
Racial equity in vaccine distribution is an issue citywide, and Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has repeatedly called improving equity a priority. A spokesperson for Rite Aid also said it’s working to improve equity. The company hosted state and local lawmakers at one of its stores in the city’s predominantly Black West Oak Lane section Friday to highlight the need for more inoculation sites in communities of color and to encourage residents to get vaccinated.
But the demographics of Rite Aid’s vaccinations also show ongoing issues in the patchwork system of giving out shots, which often simply go to people with the time and access to navigate the internet and find an appointment — even if they aren’t yet eligible. The city initially asked Rite Aid to vaccinate health-care workers, and then in early February asked it to focus on residents older than 75. The city isn’t yet asking Rite Aid to vaccinate younger people with health issues.
The Philadelphia Department of Public Health posted the data online this week, detailing the number of vaccines ordered and administered each week by providers through Feb. 21. Regular data releases on vaccination providers and demographics are now required under City Council legislation passed this week. That legislation was prompted by the scandal over Philly Fighting COVID, the self-proclaimed group of “college kids” who ran a vaccination site at the Pennsylvania Convention Center before its partnership with the city collapsed.
The data includes a racial breakdown of vaccine recipients by provider. As of Feb. 21, 18.6% of all vaccine doses given in the city — which has a population that is 40% Black — went to Black recipients. Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Friday that the percentage has since increased to 23%.
Rite Aid, which has nearly 80 stores in Philadelphia, stands out because it administered a relatively large number of vaccines while skewing heavily white.
In an illustration of the overall racial inequity in distribution, there were more doses given to white recipients by Rite Aid than doses given to Black recipients by the University of Pennsylvania Hospital System, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Temple University Hospital System, and CVS Pharmacies combined.
Rite Aid gave so many vaccines, so disproportionately, that it was responsible for 18% of Philadelphia vaccine doses that went to white recipients. That’s more than one in six, despite Rite Aid administering one of every nine of the city’s vaccine doses overall. Rite Aid was responsible for only 2.6%, or 1 in 39, of the doses that went to Black recipients.
James Garrow, a spokesperson for the Health Department, said that Rite Aid received so many vaccines because providers are permitted to order as many doses as they are able to administer.
“We are not penalizing providers for differences in demographics in administration,” he said. “Instead, we continue to work with Rite Aid to help them refocus their efforts to help make vaccine administration across all providers more equitable.”
It’s not entirely clear why so many of the store’s shots have been going to white recipients. The vaccine rollout was troubled from the start, when sharing of Rite Aid vaccination appointment links allowed people who were not yet eligible under city rules to jump the line.
And data first reported by WHYY this week showed that nearly 60% of Rite Aid’s Philadelphia vaccine doses have gone to people from outside the city, a much higher rate than other providers.
Jeffrey Olson, a spokesperson for Rite Aid, said Friday that the company was initially tasked with vaccinating health-care workers, which would impact the demographic data. He also acknowledged that “there are always areas for providers to improve,” and said Rite Aid is working to address equity gaps.
“We are working with city leaders and different organizations and programs to reach people where they live, work, play, and worship to achieve widespread and equitable adoption of the vaccines,” Olson said in an email.
The city’s struggles to quickly and equitably vaccinate the population go far beyond one partner. Vaccine demand continues to exceed supply, the city’s ill-fated partnership with Philly Fighting COVID attracted embarrassing national headlines, and racial equity remains an issue for many providers. And issues with sign-up links and software aren’t limited to Rite Aid. The city is also seeing people who aren’t eligible for vaccination make appointments anyway at the federal government-run mass vaccination clinic that opened this week at the Convention Center.
Still, the Rite Aid numbers stand out.
About one-third of Philadelphia residents are white.
Nearly half of Philadelphia residents over the age of 75 are white.
Slightly more than half of vaccines distributed by Philadelphia providers other than Rite Aid went to white recipients.
But 86.8% of Rite Aid recipients were white.
City Councilmember Cindy Bass, who chairs Council’s committee on public health and human services, said she’s disturbed by the demographics of Rite Aid vaccinations.
Bass attended the West Oak Lane event Friday, and said she’s glad Rite Aid is working to improve equity. But she said she’s still disappointed because “you just can’t go backward and amend what has been broken.”
Bass said she would like the Kenney administration to do more to hold providers accountable. She acknowledged that the administration has worked to improve equitable distribution, but said it’s “totally unacceptable” that the health department can’t require providers to meet eligibility and equity requirements.
“I would say the percentage of improvement equals the percentage of Black and brown folks who have received vaccines — low,” she said. “We still don’t have the right game plan to ensure that the right people are being targeted and that we don’t have these folks who are able to access the system and sort of jump the line.”
Standing outside the West Oak Lane Rite Aid on Friday, Sri Pinninti, a regional executive for the company, said it will continue to expand its vaccinations in the city.
“We’re continuously evaluating it and learning and putting measures in place,” he said of the current inequity in distribution.
Rite Aid is also no longer receiving vaccines from the city’s allocation. Garrow said the company is instead part of a federal government program to ship doses directly to pharmacies.
Garrow said the Health Department will continue to prioritize residents from undervaccinated zip codes when sending out invitations to make appointments.
“By offering vaccination appointments to those folks first, it is hoped that the demographics of those who have been vaccinated come more in line with the overall demographics of the city,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do with our providers, and are working to address that.”
Staff writer Jason Laughlin contributed to this article.