Philadelphia is launching a COVID-19 vaccine sign-up. What about the one that exists?

After receiving the vaccination, patients wait under observation at the mass vaccine clinic at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

After receiving the vaccination, patients wait under observation at the mass vaccine clinic at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Philadelphia is rolling out its own sign-up site for the COVID-19 vaccine, health officials announced Tuesday, adding to a growing chorus of confusion over a city partner’s vaccine registry that already exists.

In early January, the start-up Philly Fighting COVID launched a sign-up site in advance of its mass-vaccination clinic at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The organization’s announcement claimed all vaccine preparation was “in lockstep with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.”

More than 60,000 people have entered their information at PFC’s site, according to the group, which said all registration data was being shared with the city Health Department.

Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley denied that was the case. The city has no oversight of the preliminary medical database supplied by PFC’s early registrants, Farley said Tuesday.

“It’s not our pre-registration effort, and it is not an official city registry,” Health Department spokesperson James Garrow told WHYY News last week.  “We’re not using it, not reviewing it, not checking it.”

The city does have a relationship with Philly Fighting COVID, Farley clarified: It provides the group with thousands of vaccination doses for distribution each week. But the only data being shared with the city, he said, is information on people who have been vaccinated — not anyone who signed up.

PFC’s sign-up page, which uses the COVIDReadi portal, makes clear it is not registration for an appointment and does not reserve a place in line. The promise is that those who enter information about their profession, age and other relevant criteria will be notified once their group becomes eligible.

“Because we’re partnering so closely with the Department of Health, we’ll have that information before any other agencies,” Karol Osipowicz, a Drexel professor who serves as the group’s chief science officer, said during a tour of the clinic when it first opened Jan. 8 at the Convention Center.

However, the information on eligibility did not always match the city’s priority schedule, according to users who spoke to WHYY. Some residents worried the effort might be a phishing scam because they had never heard of the group, a nine-month old start-up.

The landing page for the PFC sign-up bears an official city seal, offering a sense of legitimacy for an otherwise unfamiliar organization. But that seal is actually the official insignia of City Council — which denied giving any approval for Philly Fighting COVID to use its branding.

“Council did not approve the use of its seal on this website,” said Joe Grace, communications director for Council President Darrell Clarke. “We’ve reached out to the organization’s representatives, asking them to remove the Council seal. Council has no role in this organization.”

The city’s newly proposed pre-registration system, which is expected to go live by the end of the week, would not interface with PFC’s at all, Farley said Tuesday.

It remained unclear what would happen to the tens of thousands who registered with PFC’s system, and whether they should re-register with the city’s registry.

Vaccinating people before they’re officially eligible

On Tuesday, Philadelphia officially opened vaccine eligibility for the highest-risk categories within phase 1B, including people over 75 and those with certain chronic medical conditions.

When Philly Fighting COVID opened its pop-up vaccination clinic at the Convention Center, however, only health care workers in phase 1A were eligible. Yet the link to sign up for appointments was accessible to anyone who obtained it.

Aimee Knaus, a case manager for a refugee resettlement organization, told WHYY a friend sent her the PFC link. Thinking that meant she was eligible to get inoculated, she signed up right away.

“It really seemed like, if you were a person who somehow got … this link you were the one who was going to get vaccinated,” she said.

Soon after, the same friend told her the link was not actually meant for the general public, so Knaus decided to cancel her appointment. She thought of her clients — 25 families, most of whom work frontline jobs and don’t speak English, who would never have access to this kind of early sign-up.

The experience made her lose confidence in the vaccine delivery process, Knaus said.

As rumors circulated, others who got their hands on the link did not cancel their appointments, even if they knew they weren’t yet eligible.

A person who works in the Philly music industry and is currently unemployed said he was sent the link by a friend who told him doses were “extra,” and would go bad if people didn’t claim them. WHYY agreed to withhold his name because of worry over repercussions. Self-described as a non-priority candidate for the vaccine, he successfully set up an appointment online, telling the truth about his employment status, his minimal contact with the general public, and lack of underlying conditions.

When he arrived at the Convention Center on Saturday, Jan. 9, he asked a staffer to confirm that those doses would have been wasted if people hadn’t signed up for them. A medical professional told him no, he said. The link shouldn’t have been shared with the public, the medical professional continued, but since he was there, they might as well vaccinate him.

The city does not require groups giving out doses to demand proof of eligibility, a PFC spokesperson said in a statement, explaining that for phase 1a, “some health care workers such as janitorial staff or office receptionist may not have credentials.”

“We ask that people respect the urgent need to vaccinate health care workers and those who are most vulnerable,” the statement read.

A similar link-sharing loophole led to non-health care workers flooding Rite Aid’s vaccination portal, the Inquirer reported. The Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium also began vaccinating people in phase 1B this weekend, according to its website, despite the city only authorizing vaccinations for those in 1A.

Addressing concerns about “line skipping” by people who aren’t yet officially eligible, Health Commissioner Farley said Tuesday that tightening the rules might slow down the vaccine rollout more than they would help.

Even with city sign-up, it could be weeks before your appointment

When the Philly Fighting COVID registry first went up, the city hadn’t yet announced its official priority groups for vaccination, and the information requested on the sign-up form often didn’t line up with the official categories.

For example, people with certain underlying conditions will be eligible in Philly’s phase 1B, but pre-registrants weren’t initially able to mark those options on the form.

As of Friday morning, high-risk categories were included on the registration survey, but when a registrant marked having one that should make that person eligible for phase 1B of vaccination, the person was placed in the 1C phase.

Osipowicz, of Philly Fighting COVID, said people with chronic health issues are better off seeking vaccinations from their primary care providers.

“The way our clinic is set up is not really to deal with people who have too many pre-existing conditions,” he said.

The city’s new registry could go live by the end of the week, but will only be accessible to people with internet access, Farley said. The online tool will allow individuals and organizations to “express interest” in getting in line for the vaccine.

Like PFC’s site, the Health Department sign-up would not promise an appointment — or even a timeline.

Farley estimated that the city’s limited supply of vaccines, which it gets in weekly batches from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, means some people could wait months to hear back about scheduling their first shot.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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