Philadelphia may have figured out one way to help improve the racial equity of its COVID-19 vaccine distribution, early data suggests.
At the federally run clinic at the Convention Center — a location responsible for administering half of the city’s daily shots — the city on Wednesday began reserving half of its daily doses for walk-in vaccinations for residents from under-vaccinated neighborhoods.
In the first two days of the new policy, there was a significant change in the demographics of people receiving coronavirus vaccinations, according to data released Friday evening by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.
Non-Hispanic white recipients made up 36.7% of all the vaccinations administered at the Convention Center on Wednesday and Thursday, down from the 57.7% of vaccinations the site had previously administered. Black recipients made up 19.5% of all vaccinations, up from 12.9% previously.
“Early data says that this is working,” Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said at a Friday news conference.
Hispanic recipients also made up a greater share of all doses on Wednesday and Thursday, at 16.1%, up from 10.6%, as did Asian recipients, who received 17.7% of the doses those two days, up from 16.6%.
But the people receiving vaccines at the FEMA site are still not fully reflective of the city’s overall population, which is only about one-third white. In particular, non-Hispanic Black people, the city’s largest group, were still significantly underrepresented in those two days, making up 19.5% of all Convention Center vaccine recipients in a city where they are 40.1% of the population. Asian recipients were a disproportionately high share of the recipients.
The walk-up option will continue for a total of six days, through Monday, but the site operated for nearly two weeks before switching to that model to improve diversity. Officials said they hoped the change would improve access by removing digital barriers that made it difficult for some residents to secure appointments. The city also reached out to community groups and used robocalls and text messages to spread the word about the walk-in availability.
The Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, which receives vaccinations from the city and distributes them in majority-Black neighborhoods, also began with online registration but eliminated that earlier this month, shifting to only walk-in clinics for residents from the hardest-hit zip codes. Ala Stanford, the group’s founder, said online registration had been a barrier for many residents.
The online appointment system created problems for the FEMA site even before it opened, with people sharing the links with friends and family who were not yet eligible for vaccination or lived outside the city. Farley said the FEMA site passed a milestone Friday afternoon, vaccinating 100,000 people since it opened. The site will switch next week to giving second doses to people who already got their first doses of the Pfizer vaccine at the convention center since it opened earlier this month.
Previously, the site had fueled a sharp rise in the racial gap in vaccinations when it doubled the city’s daily inoculation capacity.
Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has cited racial equity as a priority, and Health Department spokesperson James Garrow said this week that the administration would not be pleased with its vaccine distribution until it reflected the demographics of the city’s population.
But the administration faced criticism from City Council members over the demographics of vaccinations and specifically the Convention Center site, which they said was not easily accessible for all residents. Garrow said Friday that the city will continue “ramping up our outreach” to attract residents from the targeted zip codes to the Convention Center through Monday. (The policy addresses race indirectly: The zip codes are majority Black, so Garrow said this week that reaching the goal of increasing vaccinations in these neighborhoods will also increase the Black vaccination rate.)
Farley said the city is in talks with FEMA for a second federally supported mass vaccination clinic. The social services nonprofit Esperanza’s facility in the Hunting Park neighborhood of North Philadelphia is one option being discussed, he said, which could improve the racial demographics of vaccinations in the city.