The race to get expiring COVID vaccines to homebound patients in early 2021 was a story playing out in cities and towns across the U.S. In Philadelphia, Tarik Khan was one of those who personally undertook that challenge.
A 42-year old nurse, Khan would rush from his practice at the Abbottsford-Falls Health Center each evening to visit a handwritten list of people who couldn’t physically get to a clinic.
His efforts shed a light on Philadelphia health officials’ initial lack of an organized system to vaccinate homebound residents, and challenged the prevailing acceptance of immunocompromised and/or disabled people simply falling through the cracks. Other pharmacists and health care providers eventually joined Khan, and expanded the service.
Eventually, the Philly native’s efforts also led to him running for state office. In the 2022 Democratic primary, Khan defeated six-term incumbent Pam DeLissio to represent the 194th district, which covers parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery counties.
Khan’s experience is captured in the documentary short “Angel Dose,” which has its broadcast premiere on WHYY this Memorial Day at 9:30 p.m. It’ll be available for streaming for 30 days after that.
What takeaways might viewers come away with after watching the 25-minute film, directed by Sami Khan (no relation)? Here are five things to keep in mind.
Public health infrastructure is as important as ever
“The big message of the film is that we need to make sure we are investing in our public health infrastructure,” Khan said at the recent debut screening of the film.
“This should not be happening. Government should be taking care of taking leftover COVID shots to individuals. We need to make sure we are fighting for people with disabilities, accessibility challenges, and whatever challenges there may be.”
Unfortunately, the broken public health infrastructure of 2020 is largely still a problem now in 2023. Health insurance remains costly and inaccessible for many, Medicaid faces more budget cuts, vaccines and tests are no longer free, and COVID tracking is being scaled back — hindering our ability to respond if another outbreak arises.
We cannot outrun grief
About midway through “Angel Dose,” Khan is shown visiting the grave of his cat, Theodore, in his parents’ yard. He explains his regret over not being there when his beloved companion died, as he was delivering vaccines that night.
Over 1.15 million people have died in the United States from COVID, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over 14,000 of those deaths occurred across Philadelphia and its neighboring counties. In Pennsylvania, the virus remains the third leading cause of death.
Thousands still suffer from symptoms of long COVID, and many more remain undiagnosed or silently struggle with memory loss, fatigue, respiratory distress, lack of smell or taste, and other symptoms without thinking it might be related to the virus.
And for every loss, there are also the countless family and friends who remain, bearing that grief largely alone in a society that has not collectively grieved or addressed that trauma.
Stay alert and active
During a Q&A session after the “Angel Dose” screening, hosted at the PFS Bourse Theater by the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival, a resident from Khan’s District 194 asked what regular folks could do to help.
Khan responded by calling for increased voter participation, encouragement to hold legislators accountable, and more average citizens running for office.
“Legislators only go to people’s houses when they want something. It’s a problem. People realize it and then know you’re just using them and want no part of the process, feeling powerless,” Khan said. “It’s on us as legislators to ensure people feel engaged. Be out in the community, show up, and hustle.”
Watching Khan and health care workers like him knocking on doors and approaching strangers in restaurants and parks was also a reminder that average citizens should also hustle by holding legislators accountable and looking out for one another.
Be the change we want to see
Khan’s trajectory from struggling actor to nurse to doctor and politician could inspire other public servants to run for office. At least that’s what he hopes.
“We need to bring research-based knowledge” to legislation, he told the screening audience. “My soft skills as a nurse are brought to the Pennsylvania legislature. We need social workers, teachers, nurses, and women and people of color to step up and represent.”
The benefit of expertise, he says in “Angel Dose,” is to introduce “bills that stop Wall Street from looting hospitals – to give a thumbs down to attempts for a repeat of [the closure of] Hahnemann Hospital.”
We survived. But we’re not out of the woods yet.
It’s been just over three years since the pandemic started in the U.S. and the events of “Angel Dose” began unfolding.
It can feel like a blink of an eye and the longest time ever.
But, the film impresses upon the audience, it’s important to remember what happened, no matter how painful, as we reach toward a new normal.