Philly’s coronavirus response

Why Philly’s COVID-19 vaccine schedule is different from the rest of Pa.

The city has a direct relationship with the CDC because it has a history of good immunization programs.

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Miguel Martinez / Billy Penn
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Most Philadelphians are eager to get the COVID-19 vaccine. But with limited supply and a scattered distribution system, governments are rolling out inoculation in phases.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided some changing guidance on recommended priority groups, but left the final decision on how people get classified up to leaders in the jurisdictions that receive vaccine doses. In most places, that means the decision happens at a state level. But Philly is different.

Philadelphia is one of five U.S. cities getting vaccine directly from the federal government, along with Houston, Chicago, New York, and San Antonio. These municipal health departments are responsible for creating their own distribution plans.

Why these five? They have historically run good immunization programs, according to Philly Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley.

“In general, the CDC works with the states,” Farley said in mid-January, “but there are a small number of large cities with which the CDC has a relationship. It depends which disease we’re dealing with.”

Philly’s immunization registry, known as PhilaVax, was implemented back in 1994 as one of the first municipal registries in the U.S. Refined over three decades, it’s considered highly efficient, and is why Philadelphia was selected for the CDC’s pilot COVID vaccine planning program back in August, officials said at the time.

Because of this relationship, the city now gets shipments of both the Pfizer and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine directly. It then distributes doses to various partner organizations, which may include:

  • Hospitals
  • Federally certified health clinics
  • Occupational health clinics
  • Pharmacies
  • Urgent care centers
  • Congregate care settings
  • Other community partners, like the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium or Philly Fighting COVID (update: the city has stopped giving PFC the vaccine after concerns over the organization’s integrity)

Organizations in other Pennsylvania counties must rely on the commonwealth’s allocation.

Since late December, Philly has been receiving roughly 10,000 first doses of each of the two FDA-approved vaccines each week. It has also begun receiving second-dose shipments, which are not included in the first number, Commissioner Farley clarified.

Health officials say the low number of doses sent is a major barrier to getting more shots in arms. As of mid-January, organizations in Philly were giving an average of about 3,750 doses per day. (Track those statistics here.)

Because of the limited supply, only certain groups are eligible to get the vaccine at first.

To be clear, Philadelphia could opt to follow the same priority schedule as the state. But the health department’s 40-member Vaccine Advisory Committee came up with a slightly different plan they think better serves the city’s population, which has more people of color and low-income residents than many other parts of the state.

“This is one way for us to address the racial disparity of COVID mortality here in Philadelphia,” Farley said at one of the city’s weekly briefings.

The Vaccine Advisory Commission includes members like Dr. Ala Stanford of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, Kathy Epps of the Urban League, Najja Orr of the Philadelphia Corporation for the Aging, and many others. We have published the list of members here.

When will each new group open? That’s impossible to predict, Farley has said, partly because it’s unclear how many people in each of the categories will sign up to get inoculated.

City of Philadelphia phased schedule of priority populations for COVID-19 vaccine

(See the city website for detailed definitions of each group)

Phase 1A

  • Hospital staff
  • COVID testing site
  • COVID vaccination & lab staff
  • Long-term care facility staff
  • Emergency medical services
  • Home health care
  • Prison health services
  • Outpatient clinics, FQHCs
  • Unaffiliated health care providers
  • Long-term care facility residents

Phase 1B

  • First responders
  • Service providers working with high-risk populations
  • Public transit
  • Food distribution, prep, or service
  • Child care, Education providers
  • High-volume essential retail
  • Manufacturing critical goods
  • Persons working in congregate residential settings
  • Persons residing in congregate settings
  • Persons age 75+
  • Persons with high-risk medical conditions

Phase 1C

  • Sanitation workers
  • Maintenance/janitorial workers
  • Utility workers
  • Postal and package delivery workers
  • Higher education
  • Finance
  • Transportation
  • Construction
  • IT & Telecommunications
  • Public health
  • Legal
  • Persons age 65-74 years

Phase 2

  • Everyone 16 or older not previously immunized

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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