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Philadelphia has reached the benchmark of having 70% of adult residents with at least one dose of COVID vaccine, beating President Joe Biden’s nationwide July 4 target date by two weeks.
Philly’s vax rate appears higher than several other big U.S. cities, but still trails slightly behind statewide and suburban collar counties.
Pennsylvania hit the 70% first dose goal in May. New Jersey reports more than 75% of residents with a single dose, according to the CDC.
Last week, city data showed 69% of Philadelphians over age 18 partially vaccinated, and officials expected the figure to rise within the week, according to health department spokesperson James Garrow.
The discrepancy between partial and full vaccination rates is partly explained by waiting times between first and second doses, but there are some who received their first dose but skipped their second. As of early May, that number sat at about 24,000 people — a small figure compared to the nearly 1 million residents and non-residents partially vaccinated in the city.
The department does not count someone as “behind” on their vaccination until 42 days after their first dose, per Garrow, who said the gap has been closing slowly each week.
“The percentage of people fully vaccinated has been going up more quickly than the percentage of people with at least one dose,” he wrote in an email. “It’s not a HUGE outpacing, but we’re encouraged by it.”
Philadelphia health officials are proud of the progress after a turbulent six months of vaccine rollout that was riven by scandals and leadership changes.
Philly’s vax rate appears higher than other cities
In January, the department’s relationship with Philly Fighting COVID, a startup vaccine distributor run by a 22-year-old with no medical experience, ended in national scandal and led to the resignation of the health department’s second-in-command. In May, former Health Commissioner Tom Farley resigned over an unrelated incident involving the remains of children killed in the 1985 MOVE bombing.
The city still managed to vaccinate two-thirds of adult residents — more than 857,000 people in six months, according to health department data.
Garrow, the health department spokesperson, said the progress came as a welcome surprise.
“I don’t think there’s a person in the world that would say we could do it — including us,” Garrow said. “What we’ve seen in the last six months has been incredibly frustrating, but it’s still pretty amazing.”
Comparing Philadelphia’s vaccination rate to peer cities is not easy. The CDC tracks dose delivery by county, and unlike Philadelphia, which is its own county and municipality, some U.S. cities comprise parts of several counties that also encompass suburban areas. Philadelphia was also one of just five cities to administer its own COVID vaccine program, separate from state government.
That said, compared to what other cities are self-reporting for the adult population, Philadelphia’s first dose rate is high. Here are the figures as of June 21:
Closing Philly’s final vaccination gap remains a considerable challenge, as health experts expect it includes a number of people who are either too busy to get vaccinated, or are hesitant about the shot.
The city launched the “Philly Vax Sweepstakes” this month, offering up to $50,000 as incentive for residents to get the jab, and has been partnering with the Sixers and Phillies to offer free tickets at vaccine clinics.
The health department is also continuing a mass media awareness campaign, as well as door to door canvassing, Garrow said.
Why a second dose is important
People skipping their second COVID shot is a nationwide problem. White House health officials estimate millions don’t return for the follow-up dose, which can leave a person more vulnerable to the coronavirus and its mutations.
Reasons for half-vax status seem to run the gamut. Some attribute it to fear over side effects from the second shot, while others cite scheduling complications, or a belief that one dose is sufficient protection against the virus that has killed nearly 600,000 people in the U.S.
“We’re worried that their protection is not complete,” Garrow said, of Philadelphia residents who skip out.
Scientific studies indicate partial vaccination is less effective against the highly transmissible delta variant of the virus — which may fast become the dominant strain in the U.S.
There are no cases of the variant in Philadelphia yet, Garrow said, but “if we start to see cases of that here, people who thought they were protected might be at a higher risk than they thought.”