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To encourage COVID-19 booster shots, Philly officials set up shop at senior centers

The city has prioritized reaching older Philadelphians through senior centers to help people find COVID-19 vaccine booster shots.

Shirley Townes talked with Philadelphia Department of Public Health staffer Jennyfer Osuna about COVID-19 vaccine booster shots at the South Philadelphia Older Adult Center Friday, Oct. 15.
Shirley Townes talked with Philadelphia Department of Public Health staffer Jennyfer Osuna about COVID-19 vaccine booster shots at the South Philadelphia Older Adult Center Friday, Oct. 15.Read moreJason Laughlin / Staff

There’s no trouble convincing people of the need for COVID-19 vaccines at the South Philadelphia Older Adult Center.

“The people who don’t want it are ridiculous,” said Concetta Buonadonna, 94, as she waited for a workout class at the center to begin.

What remains challenging, though, is getting seniors information on where to get doses.

Approval of Pfizer booster shots for people age 65 and older in late September began another round of frustration for older people who can be less adept at online searches to find doses and make appointments. So the Philadelphia Department of Public Health is staffing senior centers like the one in South Philadelphia to help people find their shots.

“We’ve been able to make appointments, answer questions,” said Terri Clark, an outreach specialist with the health department. “It’s been wildly successful at all the centers.”

The health department has staff at the SPOAC, where more than 700 people are members, every Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and has a weekly presence at five other senior centers run by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. The centers are a place to connect with seniors as they go to a bingo game or seek out social services. The staff also offer rides to vaccine providers’ locations and help finding COVID-19 testing.

For the most part, Clark said, people don’t need much persuading to get a booster.

» READ MORE: What you need to know about COVID-19 booster shots

“We’re hearing very little hesitancy about getting the boosters,” she said.

The department plans to extend its outreach efforts to senior centers run by the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, Clark said.

Seniors at SPOAC on Friday had no reluctance to get a third shot, but they wanted convenience. Buonadonna hoped to get her shot at the Acme next door to the senior center.

If that didn’t work, she said, she would wait until a doctor’s appointment on Friday.

“I don’t come in contact with too many people so I don’t catch it,” she said of COVID-19, then joked, “At my age, I don’t get asked for dates anymore.”

Vaccine providers have administered more than 28,000 booster shots citywide since Aug. 13, when boosters first became available to immunocompromised people, according to city data.

Interest in the shots has grown considerably, said Matthew Rankin, a spokesperson for the health department. Just two weeks ago, only 10,000 boosters had been administered, he said.

The CDC approved boosters of the Pfizer vaccine six months after a person’s last dose for adults age 65 and older and those who live in long-term care, have underlying health conditions, or live or work in high-risk settings. On Thursday, a panel for the Food and Drug Administration recommended Moderna booster shots for the same groups and Johnson & Johnson boosters for all adults age 18 and older. The recommendation will require FDA approval and recommendations from the CDC over who should be eligible for doses before they are available.

Though the vaccines remain very effective at preventing hospitalization and death, efficacy may wane over time, and booster shots can bolster a person’s immune response.

Federal officials said the priority continues to be getting shots to people who are unvaccinated, about 66 million people nationwide.

» READ MORE: FDA panel endorses booster shot for J&J’s COVID-19 vaccine

About 68% of Pennsylvanians and 65% of Philadelphians age 12 and older are fully vaccinated.

Friday morning, Jennyfer Osuna, an isolation and quarantine outreach specialist from the health department, sat at a table at SPOAC stocked with informational fliers on vaccines and coupons for free coffee. Shirley Townes, 84, a retired teacher, asked for help finding a place where she could get a booster near her South Philadelphia home.

The biggest challenge of the pandemic, Townes said, has been the tension it’s created between her and her unvaccinated grandchildren.

“My younger generation in my family,” she said, “they act like they don’t want to get the shot.”

Osuna said she’s regularly asked by seniors how to talk to their relatives about vaccination.

“Corona’s killing people,” Townes said. “I tell them, don’t hug me, don’t kiss me, don’t do none of that.”