Philly public health contractor offers COVID-19 vaccine to entire staff, including those not yet eligible

A worker prepares a syringe with the COVID-19 vaccine

In this Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, file photo, a worker prepares a syringe with the COVID-19 vaccine. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

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One of the city’s largest health contractors offered COVID-19 vaccines over the weekend to its more than 3,000 staff members, many of whom do not work with patients and were not otherwise eligible for the vaccine based on Philadelphia’s prioritization scheme.

Public Health Management Corporation sent a note to all employees offering them the opportunity to sign up for the vaccine, either last week or at a special event last Saturday at the nonprofit’s headquarters at 1500 Market St., according to a Feb. 4 email addressed to all staff and obtained by WHYY News.

“Given our ongoing partnership with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and our aggressive employee COVID-19 vaccination roll-out plan, we are thrilled to make vaccine appointments available to all PHMC employees,” Richard J. Cohen, president and CEO of PHMC, wrote in the email.

Inviting all staff to get vaccinated — regardless of their eligibility in the city’s current priority schedule — was not the proper way to go about things, according to Health Department spokesperson James Garrow.

“We reminded them that the vaccine provided to them was for the populations listed on the city’s prioritization scheme, and they agreed that they should not have sent that email,” Garrow said.

This type of prioritization mishap is not uncommon, he added.

“It was a mistake and we told them that they were wrong, and they agreed to be more careful going forward,” said Garrow. “It’s regrettable, but we don’t have any desire to punish a provider for a mistake.”

According to PHMC spokesperson Patty Griffin, the email went out to the entire staff in error and the organization worked with the Health Department to clarify with PHMC leaders that last Saturday’s event was intended to “continue prioritizing client-serving staff.”

Many PHMC staffers who do not work with clients reported receiving no such clarifying message. Instead, they showed up at the office, many for the first time in almost a year, to find a cheerful atmosphere, complete with balloons and PHMC-branded masks.

“I’m not on any sort of list,” said one employee who has been working from home successfully since last spring. WHYY News has agreed to withhold the employee’s name for fear of retribution.

“I remember thinking, ‘I haven’t been in a room with this many people since March,’” said the employee.

So far, just over 20% of PHMC staff has been inoculated, according to spokesperson Griffin, who said the majority of those employees work in patient-facing positions.

Though workplaces are allowed to offer vaccines to employees, they are still subject to the city’s prioritization scheme.

Much of PHMC’s work for the city is as an intermediary, coordinator or funder for hundreds of other partner organizations, which in turn provide direct service. Many of those partner organizations have not vaccinated their patient-facing staff, leaders from the organizations told WHYY News. In its capacity as facilitator, PHMC employees offer research, philanthropy, planning and technical assistance.

PHMC does offer direct service to patients through its five Federally Qualified Health Centers, addiction treatment programs, and other direct services, such as case management. The organization had already been receiving a weekly allotment of doses from the city to vaccinate its patient-facing workers. When asked, neither PHMC nor the Health Department would say whether vaccines given to staffers last Saturday had been intended for distribution to health center patients.

Some staffers expressed discomfort with seeing their colleagues who work from home vaccinated before the patients they serve.

“PHMC touches every corner of Philadelphia and they miss the opportunity to model what is public health excellence,” said one health care employee who was disappointed with the rollout. “They’re set up for success and miss the mark.”

The decision to vaccinate all its staff was a change in course for PHMC. In a Jan. 29 email to the staff, Cohen described deploying a phased process because of the group’s limited allotment.

A week later, Cohen was opening up the invitation to everyone. The city said it did not change the number of weekly doses allocated to PHMC, but declined to provide details on the number of doses PHMC receives weekly.

PHMC would not provide an estimate of what proportion of its staff works directly with patients, or how many of its more than 3,000 employees have been vaccinated.

The PHMC staff vaccination clinic took place the day after Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley spent hours answering questions about vaccine-distribution equity during a City Council hearing focused on former vaccine provider Philly Fighting COVID. The city cut ties with that group after it was revealed that it abandoned its community testing partners in pursuit of a vaccination contract and adopted a privacy policy that would allow it to sell user data. PFC’s inexperienced CEO also admitted taking vaccine doses off site and administering them to friends.

The PFC scandal brought to light equity concerns surrounding the partnership. Farley said the Health Department does not know how many of the people PFC vaccinated were actually health care workers, as intended, and PFC claims to have lost at least some of the race and ethnicity data from its clinics. The city also elected to work early on with the fledgling PFC instead of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, a group led by experienced medical professionals who had established trust within the city’s African American community.

So far, only 16.6% of Philadelphians who have been vaccinated are Black, in a city where 44% of residents are Black.

In response, Farley said the city was putting a renewed focus on equity in vaccine distribution, including by hiring a new, full-time staff person to focus exclusively on equity.

“We need to direct more vaccine to the providers that are clearly reaching low-income and minority populations,” he told City Council members at the hearing. “We know we are not succeeding right now in reaching that population. We need to do better.”

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Disclosure: The Public Health Fund, a subsidiary of Public Health Management Corp., is among WHYY’s funders. 

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