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Appointment holders and walk-ups wait in two separate lines at the Philadelphia Convention Center. Photo: Nigel Thompson/ AL DÍA News.
Appointment holders and walk-ups wait in two separate lines at the Philadelphia Convention Center. Photo: Nigel Thompson/ AL DÍA News.

It's a tale of two lines at FEMA’s mass-vaccination site in Philadelphia, where no-shows give hope to hundreds

Some Philadelphians are waiting up to 12 hours for a chance to get vaccines left over by no-shows or cancellations. But those not showing up are the…

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A small number of no-show appointments is driving some Philadelphians to wait hours in line for the chance to get vaccinated. On one side, it keeps numbers up, but the most vulnerable populations are getting vaccinated at slower rates. 

It’s the city’s latest Catch-22 in vaccine distribution. 

It was a tale of two lines to get the vaccine at FEMA’s mass-vaccination site in Center City at 7:17 p.m. on March 8. 

They wrapped in opposite directions around the Northern entrance of the Philadelphia Convention Center. One moved gradually, while the other stood at a standstill, but was just as long. 

One line was for appointment holders, guaranteed their first round of the Pfizer Vaccine that night. The other, the walk-up line, held an air of uncertainty, but also hope, as the appointment line continued to shorten, and the 8:00 pm closing time neared. 

Hopefuls wait outside the Convention Center, fully equipped. Photo: Nigel Thompson/AL DÍA News

The landscape of the walk-up line changed towards the front, where lawn chairs scattered the sidewalk, and people laid on picnic blankets, streaming shows, reading, having snacks and talking with friends. 

At this point, queuers had been waiting in line since 2:00 p.m., but it was nothing compared to the three women who were first in line. They told AL DÍA they had been waiting since 7:30 a.m. with the hope of getting the vaccine. 

When asked if either of them were eligible for groups 1A or 1B, each said: “No.”

It’s a Black Friday-esque situation that has presented itself from a small number of appointment no-shows each day. The FEMA center is capable of administering 6,000 vaccines a day. If, let’s say 200 individuals don’t show up, someone with the determination to wait over 12 hours in the cold is going to receive a vaccine that wasn’t initially meant for them. 

But only if people continue to miss their appointments. 

Towards the back of the line, wrapping around the Northwestern corner of the convention center, stood Glenda Beltran and Fernanda Ramirez.

“I heard about this from the family I work for as a babysitter,” Beltran told AL DÍA. “They told me that they heard — I don’t know from where — that we could come and wait in line without an appointment, and at the end of the day if they had extras I could be vaccinated.”

Beltran and Ramirez, both from Mexico, said they had been waiting to be vaccinated for months. 

(Left to right) Ramirez and Beltran wait outside the Philadelphia Convention center. Photo: Nigel Thompson/AL DÍA

“I made appointments through multiple providers and I never got a call. I came by on Sunday but they told me no, but well I came back to see what happens.” Ramirez said, adding that she “definitely” wants to get vaccinated, especially because she is planning to visit Mexico soon. “In Mexico there’s no possibility of asking to get vaccinated. So I prefer to have it here and see,” she continued. 

The next day, Al DÍA followed-up with Ramirez. 

She wasn’t successful that night, but was able to get the vaccine the next morning at the Philadelphia Convention Center, without an appointment. 

It’s a slight contradiction to what a FEMA spokesperson told AL DÍA the day prior.

“The Philadelphia Department of Public Health has been working very hard to ensure every vaccine gets into an arm. The Center City Community Vaccination Center operates on an appointment-only basis, in a few cases no-show appointments have been replaced by same-day appointments scheduled by the city. This process is handled entirely by the city. FEMA is not providing any vaccinations on a walk-up basis,” they wrote.

Health Department spokesperson Jim Garrow gave AL DÍA more insight. 

“There should be 6,000 filled appointments ready to go, sometimes people don’t show up. And what we’re finding is that that rate of people not showing up is significant enough that by the end of the day if you don’t keep on top of it, we could have 500 or more open appointments that never got filled,” he said.

In response, Garrow said the City is keeping an eye on the no-show rate. 

“We’ll call our folks back at the office and say, we’re expecting to be short by whatever [sic] number of appointments at the end of the day, and they will go through our vaccine interest list, so these people who registered online and are eligible, and they’ll start calling them and say, if you show up today and give them this particular pass-phrase, you’ll be able to go through,” he said. 

As for individuals who walk up to the FEMA Convention site without an appointment or high-risk category, Garrow said the city is “aware,” as well as in regards to some people showing up claiming to be part of the current eligibility prioritization. 

“It’s impossible for us to prove that someone does meet a medical eligibility criteria going in, so we don’t check that,” he said. 

What the city is checking, is Philadelphia residency. 

Garrow says it’s not the city’s preference to allow walk ups.

“But this gets back to the point of, if we end the day short, with not having filled either 300-400 of those doses, that just means we still have access to those doses, but the next day will be that much more difficult,” he said. 

If undershows were to continue without supplementation, it starts a domino effect, and the city would fall behind on using all the doses provided by FEMA. 

“And there hasn’t really been a discussion of what happens at the end of FEMA’s mission with those unused doses. So it’s in the City’s best interest to use all of them,” Garrow continued. 

There are two sides here. 

On one hand, Philadelphia has the need to vaccinate as many people as possible, so if there are 300-400 doses unaccounted for each day, it’s a problem. On the other hand, those that aren’t showing up are predominantly from zip codes with the lowest vaccination rates. 

“Those tend to be those communities of color and people who are traditionally underserved by health care. So we’re pulling almost exclusively from those areas, to start to boost that and make sure that we’re hitting those folks who are at the highest risk, who are highest priority,” Garrow added. 

He said it’s “frustrating” to see the statistics not match the outreach efforts the Health Department has conducted, making it difficult for the city to strike a balance. 

“Our first priority is vaccinating those people in the highest risk zip codes, and the highest risk racial and ethnic groups.  So we have all of our efforts to make the vaccine accessible to those priority groups,” said Garrow. “But when that fails and we’re running out of time at the end of the day, just being able to vaccinate any Philadelphian helps move us toward this idea of herd immunity.”

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