FEMA's mass vaccination site at the Pa. Convention Center

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The Philadelphia FEMA vaccination site will start accepting walk-ups as part of an effort by city officials to close the racial and economic divide in the city’s vaccine distribution.

For six days beginning Wednesday, eligible residents in the 22 ZIP codes with the lowest vaccination rates will not need appointments to get a shot at the federally-run clinic.

People who live in the targeted ZIP codes must also meet the city’s Phase 1A or 1B eligibility criteria to receive the vaccine. The walk-up service will be offered to approximately 3,000 people per day, in addition to about 3,000 normally scheduled appointments for those invited via the city’s registry.

The proposed change comes after two weeks of smooth operation for the clinic, which has nearly doubled the city’s pace of vaccination by administering 79,000 doses since launch.

Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley said Tuesday the logistics of juggling walk-up and pre-approved appointments would be difficult, but he feels it’s now the only way to boost access among some low-ranking zip codes.

Officials’ previous strategy for increasing equity has involved “oversampling” residents from low-vaccination ZIP codes when pulling names for appointments. An official phone or email invitation has been required to schedule a visit to the Convention Center clinic, which operates 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

Data shows the inequity has persisted. “This strategy has not been enough,” Justin Harlem, state and federal policy advisor for the Philly Health Department, wrote members of City Council on Monday.

Harlem asked for Council’s help identifying community organizations to help spread the word and hand out transit passes, according to a letter obtained by Billy Penn.

The Health Department has announced six once-a-week neighborhood clinics in areas around the city. These community vaccination sites will also now begin accepting walk-ups, Health Commissioner Tom Farley said — if and only if there are extra doses that aren’t filled by invitations. The Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium was the first in Philly to operate walk-up vaccine clinics, and continues to do so.

The debate around the city’s mass vaccination sites has divided city leaders. In February, some councilmembers began pushing for a large-scale site at Lincoln Financial Field as Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration focused on one near the Center City public transit hubs. The health commissioner said he believed the downtown site would be more accessible to underserved residents than the stadium complex — which is easily accessible from two highways, he argued, and so could be inundated with suburban and out-of-state residents.

But the FEMA site has faced some similar problems. Over the last two weeks, Health Department staff and volunteers working at the Convention Center have canceled many hundreds of appointments made by people who don’t live in Philadelphia. The rash of cancellations sometimes left the clinic with unused doses at the end of the day, which officials struggled to distribute equitably.

The federal government has committed to keeping the Convention Center operation going through April 30, for a total of six weeks.

In the plan outlined by city officials on March 3, when the clinic launched, it would spend three weeks providing first doses of the Pfizer vaccine, then pivot to providing second doses to all those who’d gotten the first. That timeline only leaves six days for first dose walk-up appointments before the center switches to second doses.

The final weeks of the FEMA operation could potentially be used to give shots of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Farley suggested last week — since that only requires one dose. It’s unclear whether the shift to including walk-up patients might change this.

So far, organizations around Philadelphia have given over 365,000 first doses and completed more than 140,000 full vaccinations. Currently people who qualify for the city’s Phase 1A and 1B are eligible to receive the vaccine, which includes health care workers, people with certain high-risk medical conditions, certain high-risk essential workers, and anyone 65 and over.

Here are the 22 ZIP codes that will be eligible for walk-up service at the Pa. Convention Center, as provided in the letter to City Council.

West, Southwest, and South Philadelphia

  • 19104
  • 19131
  • 19139
  • 19142
  • 19143
  • 19151
  • 19153

North Philadelphia

  • 19122
  • 19132
  • 19133
  • 19134
  • 19140

Upper North and Lower Northeast Philadelphia

  • 19116
  • 19120
  • 19124
  • 19135
  • 19136
  • 19138
  • 19141
  • 19144
  • 19149
  • 19152

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...