Pa. coronavirus update: North Philly health center vaccinates its patients

Philadelphia’s Health Center 5 in North Philadelphia held a press conference announcing its COVID-19 vaccine clinic on Jan. 27, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s Health Center 5 in North Philadelphia held a press conference announcing its COVID-19 vaccine clinic on Jan. 27, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Updated at 7:46 p.m.

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The city’s Health Center 5 administered COVID-19 vaccines for the first time Wednesday to its patients who are over 75 or have high-risk medical conditions.

City officials say the vaccination event at the federally qualified health center in North Philadelphia is part of an effort to reach communities of color.

“I’m glad we’re opening this up in the neighborhood, because this is the most impacted community in the city. And in the country, communities of color need to be able to have significant access, they need to be prioritized, because unfortunately the disease has prioritized communities of color, so we have to make sure we do it the right way,” said City Council President Darrell Clarke who represents the neighborhood.

A Gallup poll last year indicated that 4 in 10 non-white Americans said they wouldn’t get vaccinated against COVID-19. According to a Pew Research Center poll published last month, fewer than 43% of Black Americans said they would “definitely/probably” get a COVID-19 vaccine.

The mistrust is largely caused by a racist history in the U.S. of mistreating African American patients, and manipulating Black participants in scientific experiments.

Between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service recruited African American men to participate in the research of syphilis, in what became known as the Tuskegee Experiment. The men were told they were receiving free health care from the U.S. government. The researchers disguised placebos, ineffective methods and diagnostic procedures as treatment, and the men who had syphilis were never informed of their diagnosis, even though it could lead to serious health conditions if left untreated.

COVID-19 infections and deaths have disproportionately affected communities of color. COVID-19 hospitalization rates among Black Americans are 3.7 times higher than white Americans, and death rates are 2.8 times higher, according to recent CDC data.

Yet, Black Americans are getting the COVID-19 shot much less frequently than white Americans, according to Kaiser Health News.

“Overall, we are not vaccinating enough African Americans, that’s part of what today is about, just making it available in a place people trust. There is a trust problem among African Americans. That is totally understandable. We want to make sure it’s at a place that the people trust,” said Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley.

He said organizing vaccination events at small health centers will help build trust. Staff at the health center have been calling patients to educate them on the vaccine and dispel inaccurate information, and physicians have been sharing their own experiences getting the shot.

On Wednesday, the health clinic vaccinated about 30 patients.

“Here they are vaccinating patients who have been here as patients often for years, sometimes for generations. This is a place where they know the doctors, they know the nurses, they trust them,” Farley said.

The vaccination event was part of Philadelphia’s Phase 1B, which in addition to those over 75 and people with serious medical conditions, includes frontline essential workers and those in congregate settings.

Philadelphia is still in the process of vaccinating all health care workers as part of Phase 1A.

Health Center 5 is one of 30 federally qualified health centers in the city vaccinating its patients. Philadelphia residents can also get vaccinated at hospitals, pharmacies, assisted-living facilities, and mass vaccination sites once they’re eligible.

“We will be doing this on a continuous basis until everyone who wants the vaccine, who is over 18, has the opportunity for the vaccine,” Farley said. “We’re starting with the people who are the most vulnerable, but we will expand. That will take months, but we’re excited it’s happening today.”

New UK variant of COVID-19 found in Montgomery County

Montgomery County has reported its first case of the new UK variant of the coronavirus.

The patient is a 30-year-old bartender who works at a restaurant that has had multiple COVID-19 cases since as far back as November.

The individual developed symptoms including fever, sore throat, coughing and a loss of taste and smell two weeks ago, and tested positive a couple days later.

The bartender does not have a travel history, so health officials warn that the new UK variant is active in the county. The variant is about 1.5 times more contagious than the original strain and early data shows it may be more deadly. However, it is believed that Pzifer and Moderna vaccines work against the new variant. Health officials worldwide are also keeping their eyes on new variants from South Africa and Brazil.

“It underscores the importance of wearing masks, and keeping that social distance in particular, avoiding indoor gatherings where people are taking their masks off, because it is definitely more contagious,” said Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, Chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.

She said diners at the restaurant where the patient works should only worry if the establishment was not following safety protocols.

“If a restaurant was doing everything they should be doing, and people were maintaining social distance, and the staff person kept a mask on at all times, and kept at least 6 feet away from patrons, I think the risk is small,” Arkoosh said. “But if those mitigations weren’t strictly followed the risk isn’t zero. And even if they were strictly followed, there’s always some risk. These mitigation efforts are not 100%, but they are critical in reducing the spread.”

COVID-19 on a downward trend in Montgomery County

Between Jan. 20 and Jan. 26 Montgomery County had 1,790 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total to 41,656. There have been 26 additional COVID-19 deaths, bringing the total number of fatalities to 1,125.

The positivity rate is on a downward trend, however. With a 14-day average positivity rate at 8.53 percent rate as of Jan. 21, compared to 9.5 percent as of Jan. 15, this downward trending follows a spike over the holiday season.

“This is great news, it’s nice to see that line bending down,” Arkoosh said. “Our goal is to get back down below 5%, that is considered suppression of the virus.”

Hospitalizations in the county also are on the decline, with 289 hospital patients being treated for COVID-19, which is down from 324 last week. Twenty-nine of these patients are on ventilators.

“Our hospitals do remain quite busy though. It’s great these numbers are down, it’s given them some breathing room, but please don’t think that this by any means is over,” Arkoosh said.

She also reminded people to take advantage of Montgomery County’s COVID-19 testing sites.

“While our cases are trending down, which is fantastic news, we averaged 256 cases each day during the last week and lost 26 lives,” Arkoosh said. “So we are not done yet, we have a long way to go. So while we wait for enough vaccines in the community to vaccinate everyone who would like to be vaccinated, we must think about those three W’s: wear our masks, wash our hands, and watch our distance.”

As parents, teachers, and public health experts debate the safety of returning school students to in-person learning, Arkoosh reminds people that the public must follow COVID-19 safety protocols. Some schools in Montgomery County have recently had to close due to the spread of the virus.

“We’re right back where we were, like a broken record, in the fall. We’re seeing private gatherings with students and families, we’re seeing people carpooling without masks on, we’re seeing transmission on the playing fields and practices because people aren’t wearing a mask. We could take a press briefing from the fall and run it in again,” Arkoosh said. “There’s no mystery or surprise here. If parents want their kids in schools and want schools to stay open, they have to adhere to these guidelines. If they don’t, we will see spread.”

Montgomery County awards grants to struggling restaurants

Montgomery County has approved 194 restaurant grants totaling $1.94 million as part of its Montco Strong Restaurant Grant Program

Grants of $10,000 are being awarded to each business, which were notified of their awards on Tuesday.

The funding comes from $6 million in county economic development funds that were designated to support restaurants and other food service businesses that have suffered financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Another $4 million is yet to be awarded.

Applicants for the grant had to be for-profit restaurants, food trucks, delis, bakeries, breweries, distilleries, vineyards, caterers or other food services located in Montgomery County. To be eligible, the food business must have been in operation since at least Jan. 1 2020, and have been affected by the pandemic.

Any establishment that was ordered to close because it violated COVID-19 safety codes was not permitted to apply. Of the 886 applications the county received, 35% were owned by people of color, 33% were owned by women and 4% were owned by veterans.

Last year, the county awarded nearly $20 million to small businesses and nonprofits struggling financially because of the pandemic.

“We know that our restaurants and other food services businesses were particularly hit hard during the holiday season with additional mitigation measures, and are struggling to stay open right now with limited, and sometimes no, in-person dining,” said Montgomery County Commissioner Ken Lawrence.

“The restaurant industry is a cornerstone of our economic and workforce development as well as central to the growth of entrepreneurship and job opportunities in our communities.”

“We need more vaccines” says Montgomery County officials

Montgomery County officials say more of its residents are eligible for the vaccine — but they don’t have enough vaccines for everyone. In fact, this week the county received 500 fewer doses than last week, even though eligibility has expanded dramatically.

Pennsylvania recently announced a change in its vaccination plan, opening up registration to anyone over 65 and anyone with specific serious health conditions proven to severely exacerbate  the effects of COVID-19. The change came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a recommendation to states to vaccinate these individuals as soon as possible.

Montgomery County receives its vaccines from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and therefore must comply with the new guidelines.

An estimated 230,000 to 250,000 additional people in Montgomery County now qualify for a vaccination.

“The vaccine situation is changing on a daily basis, and I want to continue to ask for our community’s patience and understanding during this evolving situation,” Arkoosh said.

“We continue to implore the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the federal government to consider allocating vaccines according to population demographics, meaning we want them to take into account how many people live in this county who are over age 65, and estimates of how many people under 65 have one of these specific underlying conditions. That would go a long way to help us meet the demand here in Montgomery County. We have the infrastructure in place, we just need more vaccines.”

So far, more than 121,510 Montgomery County residents have pre-registered online. Those who register should receive a confirmation email, and the county urges people to check their spam folders if they don’t receive it instantly. Depending on when a person registered, it may take six to 10 weeks to get a response about making an appointment.

The county is only making appointments for a few days at a time because it doesn’t have certainty about how much vaccine it will receive each week until it arrives. For example, on Monday, Montgomery County was told it would receive 7,500 vaccines, but on Tuesday was informed it would receive 3,500 fewer vaccines than previously estimated.

Montgomery County is working to update its registration system so it can inform people where they are in line.

So far the county has received 21,500 doses — 4,000 of which arrived Wednesday — and it has administered 15,677 doses, with an average of 1,000 doses per day.

Not every county in Pennsylvania has a health department, and residents in those counties must go through the state health department to register for a vaccine, or sign up at a pharmacy or physician’s office when possible.

Arkoosh said because Montgomery County has its own health department, it can administer 1,000 doses in one day. However, if those doses go to smaller entities that don’t have the infrastructure, such as pharmacies, it might take a week to administer that many doses, she said.

“We are getting this out the door as quickly as possible. We are ready and able to give a lot more vaccine than we are getting,” Arkoosh said. “We’ve made a lot of progress, but we can make a lot faster progress if we get more vaccines.”

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