The FEMA's mass vaccination site at the Pennsylvania Convention Center

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While widely hailed as a success, the Philly FEMA vaccination site at the Pennsylvania Convention Center is still figuring out how to best distribute COVID-19 vaccine left over from no-shows at its 6,000 daily appointments.

The Center City Vaccination Center, as it’s called, finishes each day with a no-show rate between 4% and 11%, according to Health Department spokesperson Jim Garrow — meaning between 230 and 660 doses have the potential to go unused at the end of each day.

During the clinic’s first week, workers at the site used an ad hoc situation to get the surplus into people’s arms.

One way was via same-day telephone invites, where the Health Department calls eligible people signed up on its vaccine interest registry to see if they’re able to come to the site right away. If people say yes, they’re given a passcode to use when they show up, so line staff at the clinic knows they’ve been invited.

“We monitor the no-show rate throughout the day and guesstimate how many unused doses we’ll have at the end of the day,” Garrow said, in order to know how many people to call.

Even after those last-minute invites, not all the leftover doses are spoken for, so some of the vaccine has been going to eligible Philly residents who simply show up at the end of the day and wait.

“We tell people this isn’t a walk-up clinic, but at the end of the day if we still have appointments left over, our staff will go out and immediately screen the folks who are there,” Garrow said. “They have to prove they live in Philadelphia, they have to prove they are in 1A or 1B.”

Officials are currently working to formalize a process to distribute the leftover doses in a fair and equitable fashion, according to Garrow. To fill vacancies, officials will first reach out to community vaccine distributors to see if they need to fill extra slots. If there are still leftovers at the end of the day, they will allow walk-ins — but it’s never guaranteed, he said.

Some line staff at the Convention Center have given mixed messages to the walk-up hopefuls.

Philly chef Ange Branca, who is of Malaysian descent, posted on Instagram last weekend about her experience trying to secure a leftover vaccine. As a member of the restaurant industry, Branca meets Phase 1B eligibility criteria for essential workers. But when she showed up and asked about getting one of the unused doses, she was nearly sent home without being allowed to wait for a shot.

She persisted, asking a different worker, and was eventually led over to join what she called a predominantly white queue of people, who told her they had been given the green light to wait.’

“It occurred to me that I may initially have been turned away from getting access to the vaccine based on my skin color,” Branca wrote in an open letter to the Health Department, which she posted on Instagram. “It bothered me very much that everyone else in the line had been directed to do it correctly by the Marines at the entrance, whereas they gave me false information and turned me away.”

Garrow said officials received the letter from Branca, and immediately reviewed procedures with line staff to make sure all walk-in hopefuls are treated in the same fashion. He also apologized.

“It is our hope that the situation that Ange was forced to confront is simply a matter of a line staff not being up to date on the latest procedures and nothing more, and we sincerely apologize for her being directed incorrectly,” Garrow told Billy Penn.

The city is trying to close the racial gap among vaccine recipients — and that’s part of the reason why officials want to deter the after-hours crowd. The waiting line tends to be younger and whiter, Garrow said.

The health department listed three main reasons doses end up unused:

  • Residents with non-Philadelphia ZIP codes who somehow made an appointment are cancelled on the spot.
  • Other people have given variety of other reasons for cancellation — and sometimes people just don’t show up
  • Some people with appointments ultimately do not receive vaccines due to medical conditions, like a potential allergic reaction

Word has circulated fast about the leftover dose supply at the FEMA site, luring some ineligible people to the Center City Vaccine Center who end up just being turned away.

And just like the appointment sign-up links were widely circulated, despite strict instructions not to share them with friends or family, the same thing is happening with the same-day passcodes, which entitle the user to an “orange ticket” that is their path to getting the jab.

“I think it would be naive to believe that these passphrases aren’t being shared,” Garrow said, but Health Department workers are reminding people not to share them. “This is an extreme balancing act,” he added, with the goal of getting vaccines to “more people, but more of the prioritized people.”

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Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...