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Almost 20,000 additional Philadelphians became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine last month when the city added HIV/AIDS as a qualifying medical condition.
The change spurred a rush for appointments at the Mazzoni Center, Philly’s only LGBTQ health center currently authorized to do vaccinations. Gay and bisexual men continue to be the population most often diagnosed with the immune system deficiency.
But the process at Mazzoni has been fraught with confusion, with competition for limited supply and a software glitch that ended up leading to a slew of abrupt appointment cancellations.
The health center at 13th and Bainbridge has administered more than 1,000 total doses so far, including almost fully covering an apartment complex for low-income LGBTQ seniors. With a regular complement of 10,000 patients each year, the center has ordered just 100 doses per week, according to director of practice management Devon Taylor.
Only primary care patients are being accepted for vaccine appointments right now, leaving out folks who access less regular services, like behavioral health care and STD testing, or HIV-positive Philadelphians who’ve never visited the center at all. Right now, all appointments are booked through next month.
“We get outreach quite often for folks who aren’t currently patients of ours,” Taylor said. “At this time we’re not vaccinating folks in the office outside of our patient population.”
There was a hiccup in the system about a month ago, when, for a hot sec, non-patients were allowed to access the Mazzoni system and register for appointments. About 15 to 20 made it through, and were canceled according to spokesperson Larry Benjamin.
These cancellations came without warning, five different people told Billy Penn.
“It was just frustrating because it let me go through the whole process, pick out a date and time, and I was so relieved,” said Philly resident Allison Sacks, a lesbian with an autoimmune disease. “Later that day I’m told, ‘No, it’s only for existing patients.’”
Feeling desperate, Sake decided to go to the Black Doctors’ COVID-19 Consortium’s 24-hour clinic at the Liacouras Center. She waited in line for five hours and received her first dose.
“I felt guilty going there,” Sacks said. “I felt like it was really meant to serve a different population. But the organization that’s supposed to be serving my population wouldn’t take me.”
Getting vaccines to a whole apartment building
The Philadelphia Health Department has no concrete plan to open another site that focuses on LGBTQ people or people with HIV/AIDS, according to spokesperson James Garrow, because sending all people diagnosed with the deficiency to one clinic would jeopardize their privacy. He noted that Mazzoni can order more doses, and other groups can apply via the city’s RFP.
Philadelphia FIGHT, a vaccine provider that specifically focuses on people with HIV/AIDS, has ordered an average of 180 doses per week since Jan. 24. according to city data.
So far, Taylor’s staff has administered 734 first doses and 273 second doses. They fully immunized the entire John C. Anderson Apartment complex at 13th and Spruce, an LGBTQ friendly housing center for low-income seniors.
Vernon Hayes, a 74-year-old who lives at Anderson got his shot from Mazzoni and was thrilled about it.
“I heard horror stories where some people signed up at seven or eight sites and never received an answer back,” said Hayes, a gay man. “This was great because I didn’t have to go anywhere or stand in a long line. It was wonderful for me.”
Mazzoni doesn’t have the staffing to ramp up vaccinations much, according to director Taylor, nor the physical space to administer many more doses.
Instead, she and her staff are planning four tentative pop-up vaccine clinics over the next two weeks specifically for people with HIV/AIDS who are already Mazzoni primary care patients.\
“We would hope to have more clinics and events in April,” Taylor said. “Once we have [our patients] vaccinated and good to go, we’re more than willing to offer the vaccine to folks outside our patient population.”