Op-ed: How FEMA is helping get vaccine to Philadelphia’s most vulnerable communities

A man is inoculated at the FEMA mass vaccination site at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Center City.
PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

The City of Philadelphia recently reached the milestone of more than 30% of city residents vaccinated, an impressive feat for a city with a population of nearly 1.6 million people. Even as thousands of people get vaccinated each day here in Philadelphia, FEMA has focused on ensuring vaccine access to communities most vulnerable of COVID-19 hospitalization and death. The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact has disproportionally affected racial and ethnic minority groups and had compounding effects on communities already economically and socially disadvantaged. Philadelphia is no exception to those compound impacts and ensuring equitable COVID-19 vaccine coverage is a national priority.

Philadelphia Department of Public Health data shows the city’s historically underserved communities are also the communities with some of the lowest vaccination rates. FEMA’s support for two federally supported community vaccination centers in Philadelphia—at the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the Esperanza Community Vaccination Center in Hunting Park—have significantly enhanced city vaccine delivery capabilities with large scale and efficient vaccine operations. These larger, federally supported vaccination sites not only mitigate many barriers for equitable vaccine delivery to underserved community members, they also free up city resources to focus on smaller community clinics and mobile vaccine operations in the city’s hardest hit neighborhoods.

An innovative and instrumental method FEMA has employed in support of the City of Philadelphia’s equitable, efficient, and timely vaccination efforts is our Trusted Messenger Initiative. Through Trusted Messenger, tours with engaged community leaders of our federally supported vaccination centers and Speaker’s Bureau events, FEMA supports Philadelphia’s vaccine equity mission by promoting vaccine awareness and confidence, helping mitigate barriers to vaccine accessibility and providing guidance in the vaccine interest and registration processes in Philadelphia’s historically undeserved communities. These community engagement events empower key communities with knowledge, essential tools and lay a foundation of trust between community members and the vaccination sites.

FEMA’s community outreach support to the City of Philadelphia fervently works to spread the message on vaccination efforts by working alongside community leaders, trusted community-based organizations, faith-based groups, and business leaders.

Since the the Center City Vaccination Center at the Pennsylvania Convention Center opened its doors on March 3, FEMA has helped deliver more than 200,000 vaccinations to Philadelphians delivering a target of 6,000 vaccines per day. Many Philadelphians vaccinated at the federally supported vaccination center have been from the city’s 22 most under-vaccinated zip codes. To reach those communities most at-risk of COVID-19’s effects, FEMA has supported the City of Philadelphia with more than 20 Trusted Messenger tours of the Center City Vaccination Center. Visits have included Congressional Representatives, City Council members, primary care providers, the City of Philadelphia’s Vaccine Equity Task Force, civil rights organizations and disability and accessibility advocacy organizations. Each visit highlights the community vaccination center’s unique capabilities: more than 100 wheelchairs on site (and the staff to help push them), our sensory stations for vaccine recipients who wish to vaccinated in private, our more than 20 on site interpreters, language line phone service that vaccine guests can call on their own phones or use a phone we provide, as well as our on site American Sign Language interpreter and video call capabilities. The visit also includes that fact that even when lines look long at the Center City Vaccination Center, the efficiency of the operation and our ability to prioritize anyone in line with an accessibility or functional need consideration truly makes the entire process as fast as possible.

Essential workers wait to receive their coronavirus vaccine at the Pennsylvania Convention Center last month.REUTERS/Hannah Beier

Complimenting in-person Trusted Messenger Tours of the facility, FEMA’s Speaker’s Bureau engaged 25 community-based organizations across Philadelphia, directly reaching more than 300 city residents. Many engagements directly resulted in Philadelphians signing up into the city’s vaccine interest database to receive vaccine appointments. The feedback FEMA and the City of Philadelphia have received on the Speaker’s Bureau events, conducted over Zoom and in-person, has been resoundingly positive.

The Center City Vaccination Center’s site selection included a strong focus on the city’s equitable vaccine distribution plan. The Pennsylvania Convention Center is accessible by every mode of public transportation in Philadelphia. The site is fully ADA-compliant and is already equipped with a host of access and functional needs capabilities. It was important from the very outset to mitigate every possible barrier in support of equitable vaccination distribution. Considering more than 1 out of every 3 Philadelphians do not own a vehicle, the centralized location ensured maximum accessibility by public transportation.

On Friday April 9, FEMA opened the City of Philadelphia’s second federally supported Community Vaccination Center in Hunting Park. This site was selected based on Philadelphia Department of Public Health data showing the location’s zip code is in the bottom third of vaccinations in the city and is central to several other zip codes in the lowest third of vaccination rates. The facility itself, Esperanza, is a longstanding trusted partner institution in the Latin American community of Philadelphia and is easily accessible by public transportation, car and pedestrians from the surrounding community.

The federally supported sites are not the only places to get vaccinated in Philadelphia, however. The city operates eight neighborhood and mobile vaccination sites. We encourage all Philadelphians to register their vaccine interest at phila.gov/vaccineinterest or by calling 3-1-1 and selecting the vaccine interest option. Additionally, dozens of community-based organizations and health care providers and hospitals are also vaccinating Philadelphians. More than 40 pharmacies in the city participate in the federal pharmacy program (many of which can be found at vaccines.gov).

The more than 500 staff members at the city’s two federally supported vaccination centers are from a variety of local, state and federal agencies. Each Community Vaccination Center team is a true testament to whole-of-government and whole-of-community approaches toward expedited vaccinations. Their hard work and timely vaccine delivery, with a focus on equitable distribution, is the most important factor in putting the pandemic behind us.

Janice Barlow is the Acting Regional Administrator at FEMA Region 3. 


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