Philly’s coronavirus response

Philly hopes to boost vaccinations 50% by end of April, but the pace has stalled 

The city is counting on FEMA to open at least one more clinic, and still leaning heavily on the Black Doctors Consortium.

Philly resident Deborah Dalton receives her second vaccine dose.

Philly resident Deborah Dalton receives her second vaccine dose.

Emma Lee / WHYY

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The pace of vaccine distribution in Philadelphia appears on track to decline for the second week in a row, even as health officials say they want to boost vaccinations by nearly 50% over the next month.

When the FEMA-run clinic opened at the Pa. Convention Center at the beginning of March, inoculations in Philly nearly doubled. Ramped up vaccinations at area hospitals and more pharmacies joining as vaccine providers helped the city hit a new high.

Philadelphia administered a record 107,000 first and second doses two weeks ago — tripling the pace from just a month prior, according to health department data.

But the weekly pace then dropped by 4,000 doses in the third week of March, despite the city adding several new community vaccination clinics. The current week’s count is not yet complete, officials noted, but the plateau raises questions about the city’s ability to hit its projected target of 161,000 doses per week by the end of April.

Health Commissioner Tom Farley disputed that distribution rates were declining, attributing the dip to reporting delays.

He did concede that, at a minimum, growth in vaccine distribution has plateaued. “I’m definitely worried about anything that’s not increasing,” Farley said. “But I’m still feeling good about the overall long term increase.”

According to figures released by the health department, the slowdown is attributable to declining vaccinations by hospitals — and the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium. The grassroots clinic took a pause from vaccinating last week to give staff a mental health break, said founder Ala Stanford.

“We all just needed a break,” Stanford explained. “I said to folks, ‘You don’t have to go out of town if you don’t want to, but I will be unreachable’.”

Until last week, the consortium had been consistently giving upwards of 6,000 doses per week. The group gives a higher proportion of its vaccine supply to Black residents than any other provider in the city. Last week, the health department reported fewer than 2,000 doses from its primary community provider.

The dip in vaccinations citywide resulting from the Consortium staffers’ break shines a light on just how reliant the city remains on the group to keep pace. This week, they’ve picked back up, rounding out their third consecutive 12-hour day of vaccinations.

“It might make you evaluate how much support you might give for something that’s working,” said Stanford.

Hospital networks, meanwhile, are Philadelphia’s largest vaccine provider group after the FEMA site. But they administered 5,000 fewer shots during the third week of March than the week prior, city data shows.

The decline could be due to the switch from vaccinating hospital employees to patients and residents, according to Dr. Steven Sivak, chair of the Einstein COVID-19 vaccine task force. Ramping up staffing for community-based sites took a while, he said, whereas hospitals had been standing at the ready to immunize their own workforce.

“Originally we were just going to vaccinate our employees — that was what we were told,” said Sivak, who is the president of Einstein Physicians Philadelphia, a 500-doctor -group. “When it became apparent there were some issues with the city, they asked for our help vaccinating the community and now we’ve opened two clinics.”

At a press briefing on Friday, Health Commissioner Farley appeared to be unaware that hospitals and the Black Doctors Consortium’s numbers had declined.

Notably, the city health department has opened several mass standing neighborhood vaccination clinics, including several during the week of the slowdown. These sites — now eight in total — do not appear to have made up for the dip, the data shows.

The goal of delivering 161,000 doses weekly by the end of April is included in the city’s newly updated vaccination plan, which is subject to frequent revision, “because the facts change so quickly,” Farley said.

Those projections are based largely on the addition of one to three FEMA-run sites that will operate at about half the capacity of the one in Center City, and be capable of inoculating about 63,000 people each week. So far, only one such site is in the works, for North Philadelphia.

The city still plans to open up vaccinations to the general population beginning May 1, in keeping with President Joe Biden’s directive.

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

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