Philly’s coronavirus response

Philly has more than 100,000 vaccine doses to distribute, with only half spoken for

Some of the backlog is for second shots. The health department says it’s working to reduce the overflow.

Philadelphians wait in line outside the Liacouras Center for the Black Doctors Consortium's 24-hour vaccination clinic in February

Philadelphians wait in line outside the Liacouras Center for the Black Doctors Consortium's 24-hour vaccination clinic in February

Emma Lee / WHYY
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Philadelphia is sitting on a growing stockpile of unused vaccine as the city continues to receive more doses than it can administer each week.

The city has ended each week since February with around 100,000 on hand, including first and second doses, according to a Billy Penn analysis of federal vaccine allocations and the health department’s distribution count. On the week ending March 28, the vaccine stockpile climbed to 106,000 doses.

City officials did not dispute the analysis, but did claim the backlog is not as large as it seems.

“Approximately half” of the unused shots are second doses sitting in reserve for people who have already received a first shot, said Philadelphia Department of Public Health spokesperson James Garrow. He added the department also keeps backup doses on ice in the event of a delivery shortage one week and is maintaining a large amount of vaccine in reserve for future mass clinics. (The department tapped the stockpile on Tuesday after U.S. health officials “paused” the use of the single-shot J&J vaccine.)

Even so, Garrow acknowledged limited distribution capacity.

“There are doses that are first doses that could be given out, but haven’t been yet,” he said. “We’re catching up, though, as we bring more providers onboard, we should get closer to reducing that backlog.”

When vaccine first arrived in Philadelphia in December, demand far outpaced the supply. By February, Health Commissioner Tom Farley warned that the situation had reversed — with vaccine supply outstripping the city’s capacity to deliver doses.

The city has built a large network of distributors, from hospital networks to neighborhoods clinics to local pharmacies, and is still adding more through an ongoing RFP process. So far, those efforts do not appear to have solved the problem.

City Councilmember Allan Domb, who has sparred with the Kenney administration over vaccine distribution, sent a letter to Farley and colleagues on Council last week voicing concern about the backlog. His fear: Philadelphia is not prepared for an increase in allocated doses from the federal government, and the backlog will continue to balloon.

“We need to put those doses into the arms of people and make sure we have the ability to do it,” Domb said Friday. “It’s logistical planning, and I’m not sure the administration has done it.”

Congressional reps urge FEMA to stay

Right now, providers around the city are combining to administer over 100k doses weekly.

The health department projects it will vaccinate 161,000 people per week by the end of April. But that goal hinges on both expanding the city’s network of vaccine distributors and new commitments from FEMA that have yet to materialize.

Philadelphia received nearly 73,000 doses each week on average over the last month. The health department distributes these doses to a growing fleet of vaccine distributors.

The FEMA-run mass vaccination clinic at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which provides its own doses, accounts for a third of the city’s vaccine administration every week. But the eight-week operation will be coming to an end in two weeks — and FEMA has not yet responded to the city’s request to extend the clinic’s run. Philly’s congressional delegation is urging FEMA to extend its stay, lest the city lose more than 40,000 extra doses per week.

A new FEMA-run site opened on nonprofit Esperanza’s campus in North Philly this week, but will be capable of vaccinating less than half as many recipients as the convention center site.

Beginning tomorrow, the Health Department will draw down from its existing stockpile to ensure that we can continue to vaccinate 6,000 Philadelphians per day.

Domb and other political leaders have been backing a proposal to put a site at Lincoln Financial Field, but the Kenney administration has rebuffed the idea repeatedly, arguing that they don’t have enough doses to stock a mass clinic at the Eagles stadium.

“If we were to divert 6,000 vaccines a day to Linc, we’d be shortchanging people in the neighborhoods,” Kenney said this week.

Health officials said there’s no indication the federal government’s vaccine allocation will not increase dramatically in the coming weeks. In fact, they expect it will constrict. “We haven’t been given a reason,” Garrow said.

Farley has also suggested the pool of residents eager to be vaccinated will dwindle even as the city opens up eligibility to the general population on April 19.

“It is also difficult to predict the demand for vaccination in future weeks,” Farley wrote in a letter to City Council on Friday.

“While until now demand has greatly exceeded the city’s capacity to administer vaccines, both national surveys and local experience show that a sizable proportion of people are reluctant to be vaccinated.”

Stockpile tapped to fill void left by J&J

Following this article’s publication, the CDC reported unusual blot clots in a small number of J&J vaccine recipients and recommended halting the administration of the vaccine until further notice. The abrupt disruption allowed the city to put its growing stockpile of unused vaccine to immediate use.

FEMA had begun administering the J&J vaccine this week when news about the single-dose shot broke, quickly forcing a pivot back to the two-dose Pfizer vaccine. Garrow said the clinic is using up the last of FEMA’s Pfizer reserves on Tuesday, and will continue operations on Wednesday using the city’s stockpile until new doses arrive from the federal government.

“We do not have any replacement doses from the federal government as of yet, so if not for the Health Department’s stockpile, the CCVC site would shut down tomorrow until new doses were identified and brought into the city,” Garrow said.

Officials do not expect interruptions to the 6,000 scheduled vaccination appointments each day.

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

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