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‘Let’s have some fun’: Vax Up Philly Parade brings vaccines and free ice cream to people where they are

The Vax UP Philly Parade was designed to give people access to the COVID-19 vaccine, along with entertainment.

The Snacktime Philly Brass Band perform atop a double-decker bus as they arrive at City Hall Sunday as part of the Vax Up Philly Parade that started earlier in FDR Park, offering free vaccinations, live music, education, free ice cream and more.
The Snacktime Philly Brass Band perform atop a double-decker bus as they arrive at City Hall Sunday as part of the Vax Up Philly Parade that started earlier in FDR Park, offering free vaccinations, live music, education, free ice cream and more.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Working six days a week installing granite and laying concrete has left little time for Leobardo Casteneda Santiago to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but he finally made time Sunday, his day off.

“I saw on my Facebook that this was here, and it was free, so I came,” he said moments after getting a Pfizer shot at the first of three stops on the Vax Up Philly Parade in FDR Park in South Philadelphia.

The parade — which also made stops in Dilworth Park next to City Hall and outside of the Philadelphia OIC building in the 1200 block of North Broad Street — was a different way to reach out to people who, for whatever reason, have yet to get the shot. It was sponsored by the city’s Office of Emergency Management, Radiokismet (the city’s only dedicated podcast network), and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, among others.

Meeting people where they are

The festivities included stilt walkers, a Philadelphia 76ers-sponsored jazz band and free ice cream. The goal: to reach people who have not yet been vaccinated.

The FDR Park stop was next to the soccer field, busy with people who were gathered to watch the league game and share tacos and quesadillas from local vendors. The park was an ideal starting place for the event because it’s popular, especially for members of Latino communities, said Morgan Hutchinson, a Jefferson emergency room physician. For some of them, language has been a barrier to getting the vaccine, so Vax Up had literature and on-site translators.

Since the pandemic began, almost 4,000 people have died in Philadelphia and 165,000 cases have been documented. About 65% of Philadelphia’s population has been fully vaccinated, while about 80% have had at least one shot, said Hutchinson.

But many who have not been vaccinated have mobility issues or language barriers, have fallen prey to misinformation, or claim to be too busy, Hutchinson said.

In addition to working long hours, Santiago, 36, a Mexican American with limited English skills, said his coworkers refuse to be vaccinated. “They don’t want it. They don’t say why,” he said.

David Meneses, 40, said he comes to FDR Park about once a month for the games, food, relaxation and, on this particular Sunday, to get vaccinated.

“I felt it’s time to do it because I see a lot of people getting it, my friends and family, too,” said Meneses, who works for a South Philadelphia bakery.

He said he wanted to wait to get vaccinated to see how others were impacted by the shots. “To be honest, I don’t like vaccines. I waited to see what the reaction would be in others. My friends who got it said they had a little headache, a little cold, but that’s it.”

After getting his shot, Meneses said he felt fine and was glad that he got it done. He’s also pleased that his 19-year-old daughter has been vaccinated in time to return to Drexel University this fall.

About 45 people got the vaccine at the park, which organizers said was a good number.

New outreach as new cases rise

From FDR park, the procession continued in several vehicles, including a double-decker bus, to City Hall, where more people were attracted by the pop-up vaccine tent, the brass band and speeches, and then to a sidewalk outside of the OIC building on North Broad Street.

“We all saw the numbers [of infected people] going down over the summer, so I think there were a number of people who were like, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to get vaccinated for that reason.’ But with the delta variant being extremely contagious, I think a lot of people are getting nervous,” Hutchinson said.

Joy Mackey, 55, of Fairmount, was first in line for a shot at the OIC pop-up clinic. She said she saw a flier three days ago advertising the parade, and decided to come.

“I think I need to do this, for all of us,” she said. “It is not something I was excited about, but I have to tow the line.”

Mackey said she hadn’t gotten the vaccine before Sunday because she had a lot going on in her life, not because she was afraid distrustfulof it. “I don’t believe in that: Being afraid. God covers me.”

‘We’re trying, literally, everything’

Clinical pharmacist Robert Pugliese, co-director of Jefferson’s Mobile Community Vaccination Program and director of Innovation Design at Jefferson, said reaching those who have not been vaccinated can be tough work, and the parade was a different way of doing critical outreach. “We’re trying, literally, everything. So we decided, let’s have some fun.” .

“The crazy thing is, the numbers across the city look great — 80% of people have gotten at least one vaccine. But you start breaking that down neighborhood to neighborhood, and there are a lot of places in this city that are under 40% [vaccinated] still,” he said.

“That’s not enough to protect the people in those communities. Areas like up in Kensington and places in West Philly. They’re all over the place. As soon as you start leaving Center City you see zip codes with really low vaccination rates.”

The parade was part of outreach efforts that have been happening across the city since spring. Hutchinson noted Jefferson’s Mobile Community Vaccine Program has hosted pop-up vaccination clinics in FDR Park for the last four weekends and since May 1 in other parts of the city where vaccination rates are low.

More mobile sites are planned throughout the city through September, including weekends at FDR Park. Those seeking information on getting vaccinated are asked to call Jefferson’s hotline at 215-512-2173, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.