Opinion: How FEMA is helping get vaccine to Philly’s underserved communities

The regional administrator describes the federal agency’s efforts at the Convention Center — and in city neighborhoods.

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Courtesy FEMA Region 3
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Janice Barlow is Acting Regional Administrator for FEMA Region 3


FEMA Region 3 is focused on reaching underserved communities. Every decision is balanced by that fervent aim.

The decision to locate operations at the Pa. Convention Center was multifaceted. As a central location within Philadelphia, it offers a navigable and accessible location to all city residents, with major public transportation hubs located within walking distance and areas for vehicle drop-offs for those that need it.

More than 100,000 people have received a vaccine at this site so far. We open on time each day, with a highly efficient process that adds vaccines to the community

It is important to note that the 6,000 doses administered daily at the Convention Center do not come “off the top” of the city’s weekly allotment. They are an additional 6,000 doses per day. By providing this separate allotment, FEMA is adding significant capacity and volume to the city’s existing network of vaccination clinics, allowing the city to deliver more of its doses in neighborhoods where the most underserved live.

A recent article in a local newspaper commented on FEMA’s efforts without offering us an opportunity to provide input.  But to assess the equity of the Center City site, without the context of all of the other sites, lacks a full picture of the city’s decisions and process.

I also want to emphasize that the Philadelphia Department of Public Health manages the registration website and the registration process, not FEMA Region 3. The city identifies where to send each individual based on a myriad of factors.

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Carlos Chiossone / for FEMA

We continue to support the city’s efforts to improve equitable vaccine distribution. To that end, we have made operational changes and we have implemented outreach efforts throughout the city’s most underserved communities, to include:

  • An allotment of 3,000 walk-up appointments per day between March 17 and March 22. These walk-up opportunities existed only for Philadelphia residents in the 22 most underserved ZIP codes.
  • Community outreach efforts direct to the most underserved neighborhoods, to include meetings with civic groups, direct registration assistance to residents in underserved communities, the formation of a “street team” that has, to date, spoken directly with over 240 Philadelphia business owners, and the sharing of tool kits that community and neighborhood leaders can use to get the message out about registration, vaccine safety, and the vaccine process. We have brought laptops to association meetings to help people register directly.
  • 14 radio interviews across 11 radio stations in the Philadelphia market, including one interview fully in Spanish and one fully in Haitian-Creole. FEMA has also worked with our radio partners to deliver Public Service Announcements on stations throughout the city.
  • Direct outreach to Philadelphia City Council, because we know they are a direct link to their neighborhoods and communities.

These outreach efforts are done in conjunction with our day and night job of running this vaccination site and our mission of helping people before, during, and after disasters. All disasters. In all states and territories.

The Center City Vaccination Center runs because of more than 100 FEMA staff, 230 Department of Defense staff (including more than 220 sailors and marines), Civil Air Patrol mobilized in support of the Pa. Emergency Management Agency, and more than 40 Pa. National Guard members, plus volunteers, Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control staff, the Philadelphia Health Department staff and Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management staff.

Also working daily at the Convention Center site are 25 interpreters, speaking 10 languages, including American Sign Language.

We understand that this fight is not over, even as a light begins to shine at the end of this dark year-long tunnel. We, like all of you, want this pandemic to end and we understand the best step towards accomplishing that goal is to get Philadelphia residents vaccinated.

FEMA’s vow to you is to do our part, to adjust when needed, and to continue our work in support of the city, for Philadelphia and its underserved residents.