New FEMA vaccine clinic could open in North Philly’s Latino hub

A proposed FEMA vaccination site would take up a 400,000-square-foot space on Esperanza's Hunting Park social services campus. (Google Maps)

A proposed FEMA vaccination site would take up a 400,000-square-foot space on Esperanza's Hunting Park social services campus. (Google Maps)

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A new FEMA mass vaccination site could be coming to North Philadelphia in the heart of one of the city’s Latino strongholds, local and federal officials confirmed to WHYY News and Billy Penn.

According to community leaders, the vaccine clinic would take up a 400,000-square-foot facility on the sprawling campus of social services group Esperanza in the Hunting Park neighborhood. It would be set up to deliver 3,000 shots per day, seven days a week, in one of the most undervaccinated areas of the city.

FEMA said no plans have been solidified, but the agency acknowledged talks to open a second federally run facility in Philadelphia.

“We continue to coordinate closely with city officials on future plans,” said agency spokesperson Gabriel Lugo. He added that the process for selecting sites and requesting FEMA assistance “is locally driven.”

U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle’s office said it is “confident” FEMA will approve the site “barring any late-stage snags.”

Dubbed a Type 2 site, the North Philly clinic would take a few weeks to set up and could open in late April, officials said, just as operations at the Pennsylvania Convention Center wind down. As a Type 1 site, the Center City clinic has the capacity to offer 6,000 shots per day.

Even at half that pace, community leaders say a site in the Hunting Park area would be a game changer.

Black and Latino residents have been dramatically underrepresented in the city’s vaccination efforts so far, and the registration system at the Convention Center site has only widened that racial gap.

A remedy for the city’s low Latino vaccination rate?

Esperanza founder Rev. Luis Cortes said his organization has been in talks with the city and FEMA for weeks about rectifying what he views as a poor vaccine rollout that cast aside the city’s Latino population, who make up 15% of residents.

“We were not seeing a coordinated response, and when the city finally got a coordinated response, our folks were not a part of it,” he said.

Cortes said he and his colleagues suggested the Esperanza facility to FEMA, which chooses locations for its mass sites using a “data-driven approach that emphasizes equitable distribution to statistically high-risk and underserved communities,” according to spokesperson Lugo.

FEMA has already performed that analysis on the Esperanza site, he said — suggesting a final agreement is within close reach.

Proximity to vaccines could be key to narrowing racial disparities. In a recent Harris Poll, 25% of people said they’d be more likely to get a COVID-19 vaccine if it was provided at their local doctor’s office, or if they saw people like them take it first. Research points to proximity to health care as a consistent factor in health outcomes.

Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, whose district includes Esperanza, said walkability was key, because of ongoing transit issues and people’s reluctance to travel far from home.

“People need to be able to walk to it,” Quiñones-Sánchez said.

Plainclothes personnel and community volunteers

Heavy military presence is another shortcoming of the Convention Center, said Esperanza president Cortes.

Though federal officials have made it clear that immigration status does not affect vaccine eligibility, the presence of uniformed staff in a highly regulated environment is enough to deter many Latino residents, community leaders said.

Because of this, FEMA has said its staff in North Philly could include National Guard members in plainclothes, according to Cortes, supplemented with community volunteers. He noted a deep mistrust for government-led medical efforts among the Latino community, based on historical injustices such as the sterilization of Puerto Rican women without their consent.

According to FEMA’s vaccination center playbook, a Type 2 site would offer 160 personnel, including 40 vaccinators and roughly 50 other health care workers, plus staffers in charge of traffic flow operations and other non-clinical needs.

Philadelphia Health Department spokesperson James Garrow confirmed the city has for weeks been in talks with FEMA about the potential of setting up smaller clinics. He said that Esperanza was one of many sites under consideration, but that nothing had been finalized.

Distribution is now the main barrier to getting shots into Philadelphians’ arms, according to Health Commissioner Thomas Farley.

“We do have some limits on how quickly the vaccine providers can set up clinics and get staff trained, and do all the work around this,” Farley said in early March. “It still takes time to get up to scale.”

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