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COVID-19 vaccine allocation creates ‘vaccine deserts’ in parts of Philly

An immigrant advocacy group and Jefferson University Hospitals are prepared to start providing doses in a community without easy vaccine access, but are waiting for city approval.

Thoai Nguyen, CEO of SEAMAAC, poses for a portrait on Tuesday, March, 2, 2021. “Large majority of South Philly has been completely ignored,” Nguyen said. “I’m just angry that the city is ignoring immigrants and refugees. Not thinking about language barriers and digital divide. Just making it difficult for people in general. I’m disappointed and I think the city officials need to be held accountable.”
Thoai Nguyen, CEO of SEAMAAC, poses for a portrait on Tuesday, March, 2, 2021. “Large majority of South Philly has been completely ignored,” Nguyen said. “I’m just angry that the city is ignoring immigrants and refugees. Not thinking about language barriers and digital divide. Just making it difficult for people in general. I’m disappointed and I think the city officials need to be held accountable.”Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

From Broad Street to the Delaware River, a swath of densely populated South Philadelphia neighborhoods has no easy access to desperately needed COVID-19 vaccines.

“We’ve got old people from South Philly trying to fudge their addresses so they can go to other states and other parts of this state so they can get vaccinated,” said Joseph F. Marino, president of the advisory council at East Passyunk Community Center. He has struggled for months to find doses for seniors who were regulars at the center before the pandemic.

The neighborhood is among the city’s vaccine deserts, where vulnerable residents can be close to a mile away from chain pharmacies, health centers, or mass vaccination sites providing doses. The distance might not seem excessive for the young and healthy. But for the infirm or elderly, it can be intimidating, and even if they’re able to make the trip, there’s no guarantee they can find an appointment. The city’s map of vaccine providers shows such zones in parts of Philadelphia’s northwest, northeast, and western neighborhoods, too.

“We acknowledge that there are areas where more clinics could be placed,” said James Garrow, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia health department, “and South Philly is one of those areas.”

Thoai Nguyen, chief executive of the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition (SEAMAAC), applied a month ago to carry vaccine at a wellness clinic his organization and Jefferson University Hospitals are opening next week at the former Bok Vocational High School. The old school at Eighth and Mifflin Streets is nearly in the middle of South Philadelphia’s vaccine desert.

“This community, it’s probably because they’re mostly immigrant and refugees and African Americans and poor, working-class white that it’s being completely ignored,” Nguyen said. “I really do think that the city has completely failed its most vulnerable and marginalized communities.”

The city disputed that characterization.

Last week, Garrow said, the health department set up three new clinics in underserved communities and is reviewing requests for proposals for new mass vaccination sites in such areas.

SEAMAAC’s wellness clinic could provide vaccine allocated to Jefferson, Garrow said, but Nguyen wants it to be an ongoing mass vaccination site through a continuing source of doses from the city.

» READ MORE: Vulnerable immigrants in Philly are scrambling to get the COVID-19 vaccine with few resources or outreach

Elizabeth Fiedler, the neighborhood’s state representative, has been lobbying the city for more vaccine access.

“The city has toured a number of locations in the district,” she said. “I don’t quite honestly understand why a site has not been located.”

A diverse neighborhood, and vulnerable

In a community that encompasses seniors, people financially struggling, and large nonwhite populations — factors associated with COVID-19 illness and death — there is plenty of demand for vaccine, and too few places to get it.

Fiedler is particularly concerned, she said, about seniors’ ability to get to Philadelphia’s mass vaccination clinics in other parts of the city.

Marino learned this week of a 96-year-old woman who had been a regular at the community center before the pandemic, and is in the hospital with COVID-19.

“I am sick over it,” he said.

Margaret Aquila, an 84-year-old who moved to South Philadelphia when she married in 1956, has reached out to vaccine providers within and outside the city to find an appointment, with no luck.

“We get so far on the website and then they take you off,” she said. “They’re full at the time.”

Aquila, who lives about a block from the Bok Building and uses a wheelchair, needed medical care and rehab in July for a broken hip, she said. Now she may need shoulder surgery.

“God forbid I have to go in,” she said. “That’s my fear, if I was in a hospital I would end up catching COVID.”

Nguyen’s efforts to secure appointments have been similarly frustrating.

“There were three other people, who are of Vietnamese descent, we signed up for the city [website] at least four weeks ago,” he said, “and to date we have not even received a confirmation to say, ‘Hey, we got your registration.’”

Waiting for approval

City officials have said about 47% of Philadelphia’s doses are going to people who live outside the city. The Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium has implemented walk-in-only registration at its first-dose clinics to ensure doses for disadvantaged communities aren’t snapped up by wealthier people with digital savvy.

SEAMAAC’s experience with community outreach to boost voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election means that it knows how to reach people effectively to ensure only eligible people are getting vaccinated. The organization intends to rely heavily on phone calls and door-to-door visits to register people, and ensure South Philadelphians are prioritized for doses.

“You’ll have to be able to verify your address when you come to the appointment” at the Bok clinic, Nguyen said. “I don’t actually think verifying people’s address and identity is a bad thing at all.”

» READ MORE: These suburban Philly women hustled to get COVID-19 vaccination appointments for family. Now they’re helping strangers.

The community-centered approach also will help older people and those who aren’t fully proficient in English.

“We are translating all the information into as many languages as we are capable,” Nguyen said. “A lot of the clients we serve ... refugee, immigrants ... they don’t want to deal with the digital world.”

Filling in the deserts beyond South Philly

Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson said parts of his district in Southwest Philly also need vaccination sites.

“They want a shot and they want it now,” he said. “Even though we tell them we don’t have enough vaccine, they don’t want to hear that.”

Addressing these vaccine deserts, city officials said, requires trained staff and locations with the capacity to store easily perishable doses and administer them in large volumes.

“As we transition from a period of not enough vaccine to enough vaccine, it takes time to have a site physically stood up,” Garrow said.

The city’s vaccine administration has swelled from 26,000 a week in January to almost 50,000 a week by the end of February, he said. With more doses available, the city is expanding its list of pharmacies approved to carry vaccine. Intermittent community clinics through hospitals or the Department of Public Health are continuing, he said, and the city is reviewing applications from organizations seeking to be long-term vaccine providers. These could be groups that want to supply vaccine at a single site, as SEAMAAC and Jefferson are seeking to do, or for an organization looking to host regular clinics throughout the city, Garrow said.

Nguyen urged the city to act quickly.

“Even if you don’t want to support SEAMAAC and Jefferson, fine,” he said. “Find another place. Find another place to support this neighborhood.”

Staff writer Aubrey Whelan contributed to this article.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at