Julio Polanco bounced on his heels to keep warm in the chilly morning outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center. He was close to the front of the line, but either way he didn’t mind the wait — he and a handful of his colleagues were about to get their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I’m very happy to be here,” said Polanco, who works at the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center. “It’s going to be easy for me to be comfortable, because I’m 58 years old. It’s going to be easier to provide my services without being scared or being sick.”
A behavior specialist consultant, Polanco works with kids who have emotional and behavioral issues, and their families. That means he’s going into schools and homes constantly, often in areas of Philadelphia hit hard by COVID-19.
Polanco said he was pleasantly surprised to learn he would be included in the first phase of vaccine recipients — he hadn’t expected to be prioritized. Home health workers like him are included in Phase 1a, but because they aren’t associated with hospitals that could coordinate their shots, the city set up a mass vaccination site at the Convention Center to inoculate them.
All of Polanco’s 560-plus coworkers at Children’s Crisis Treatment Center. were offered the vaccine, though it’s not clear how many accepted. More than 90 home health agencies were contacted by the city.
By 9:30 a.m. Friday, the line of pre-registered workers snaked around the block.
Philly Fighting COVID is running the operation at the Convention Center, where a total of 2,400 home health workers will be vaccinated on Friday and Saturday. Andrei Doroshin, Philly Fighting COVID’s CEO, said that there is a waiting list of more than 1,000 people, and that if the supplies keep coming in, his group will continue to operate the site. The city estimates there are 15,000 home health workers in Philadelphia.
Running on all cylinders, the operation has the capacity to vaccinate 100 to 400 people per hour, or 1,000 to 4,500 people per day, but it won’t be up and running on a consistent basis until the city gets a steady flow of vaccine supplies.
In the meantime, Philly Fighting COVID has an online portal where anyone can pre-commit to getting a vaccine, so that as the city opens up the next phases for inoculation, people will be notified. The city wants health care workers who may be eligible now to register on the Philadelphia Health Department site.
About 10 registered nurses, 20 medical students, and more additional volunteers will work together to administer vaccines.
Right now, only health care workers and residents and employees of long-term care facilities in Phase 1a are eligible for vaccination. Deputy Health Commissioner Caroline Johnson said she estimates the city is about halfway through vaccinating that group.
Next will come essential workers such as first responders, teachers, and people who work in high-risk settings such as grocery stores, as well as those who live in group settings like shelters and drug treatment centers. After that comes anyone over 65, then essential workers with high-risk conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or obesity. Then, anyone who remains will be eligible.
Other Philly vaccination venues
Moving forward, Johnson said, people may be vaccinated in similar mass inoculation events like the one at the Convention Center, but to expect to start to see a variety of venues for vaccine distribution, including at commercial pharmacies.
“You’ll see a lot of different opportunities coming up over the next months,” she said.
Johnson hoped this event would be one way to even out the racial distribution of vaccine recipients — until now, those receiving the vaccine have been disproportionately white. According to a 2017 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report, employees in the home health field are more likely to be people of color.
“We made the intentional decision to say OK, we want to get this vaccine into those communities early, we are going to specifically invite this population that is very heavily weighted towards persons of color,” said Johnson. “That’s who was invited.”
For those who do get vaccinated, here’s how it will work: People will set up appointment times in advance. Once inside, they will enter an “inoculation pod”, essentially a curtained-off area, where one of 10 registered nurses on staff will administer the vaccine, with a medical student or other volunteer standing by to assist. A waiting area is set up for people to hang out after they get inoculated, in case they have any sort of adverse reaction. The space is well ventilated, with a state-of-the-art system to ensure constant air circulation.
A start-up that launched in 2020 to offer COVID testing, Philly Fighting COVID was awarded city funds to operate at least four free, no-referral-needed testing sites, and has tested more than 20,000 people. It plans to offer free rapid antigen tests to all Philadelphians in the coming weeks.
The group’s CEO, Doroshin, said he hopes that in the future the vaccination site will be funded through a grant from the city Health Department, some of which will come from the latest federal relief package. For now, he and some friends are privately funding it. When asked how much it costs to operate the site per day, he declined to give a specific figure but said it was the price of “a really nice Mercedes.”
Mayor Jim Kenney was joined by City Councilmembers Bobby Henon, Mark Squilla, and Cindy Bass in commending the site Friday for its role in speeding up the too-slow vaccination rollout.
“‘As much as I hate needles, I’m gonna get vaccinated,” said Bass, who chairs the council’s health and human services committee. “I’m gonna get vaccinated because I know that the consequences of not getting vaccinated could be death. This is very, very serious.”
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