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Firscomers get vaccinated at FEMA’s mass-vaccine Photo: Nigel Thompson/AL DÍA News
Firscomers get vaccinated at FEMA’s mass-vaccine Photo: Nigel Thompson/AL DÍA News

For Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez, the issue again is equity regarding Philly’s vaccine access

The councilmember represents zip codes with some of the lowest vaccination rates in the city.  

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At FEMA’s mass-vaccination site in Center City, some Philadelphians have found a loophole that doesn’t require them to make an appointment.

Instead, those with the time, resources, knowledge, and access are opting to camp-out for up to 12 hours outside the Convention Center, or trying to come by just before closing, with high hopes brought-on by hundreds of no-shows. 

The situation presents two sides. 

On one, the City has the need to vaccinate as many people as possible, so if there are hundreds of doses unaccounted for each day, it sets-up a domino effect wherein the city would fall behind on using all the doses provided by FEMA. 

But on the other, those that aren’t showing up to their appointments tend to be from communities of color and people who have been long-underserved by health care. 

The most-vulnerable populations continue to be vaccinated at slower rates.

A FEMA spokesperson told AL DÍA it it isn't encouraging walk-ups, and people shouldn't be lining up without an appointment. Still, "FEMA and the City of Philadelphia are committed to reducing vaccine waste."

The no-shows aren’t helping, caused by an utter lack of the same resources that are enabling others to dedicate entire days, or at least large portions of their days, to attempting to get the vaccine. 

Councilmember María Quiñonez Sánchez isn’t surprised. 

“This is the same phenomenon that we see with many other critical public health services. Participation rates remain low despite dire need,” she told AL DÍA. 

She said this situation has, and continues to manifest itself in several ways. 

From essential workers and seniors in her district, who face transportation challenges to get to the Center City vaccination site. 

“The only way to ensure that you are reaching high-risk individuals is by making the vaccine widely accessible in those communities. I am hopeful that Esperanza CDC in my district will be approved as a vaccination site and make meaningful progress,” Quiñonez Sánchez continued. 

To this, Health Department spokesperson Jim Garrow said the Health Department is working with Esperanza CDC to improve vaccine access, and encourages such partnerships to continue like the one with the Black Doctor’s COVID-19 Consortium, hospitals and health systems, federally-qualified health centers, and pharmacies. 

“We believe they are a critical partner for information distribution and helping to get folks vaccinated. We would be extremely excited to see Esperanza partner with an approved vaccine provider to set up a clinic at their facility and in their community,” Garrow continued.

To this, Rev Luis Cortés, with Esperanza CDC said he has been trying to bring vaccines into his community in Hunting Park for weeks. "Esperanza has been trying to partner for over a month with FEMA, city and or anyone that would bring vaccines to the community with no success," he said. 

"Everyone speaks of Equity but no one seems able to do equity when it comes to the vaccines," Cortéz added. 

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley recently announced the opening of five new community vaccination sites in the city, set to open March 15. 

These mass-vaccination sites are in addition to the five currently running throughout the city, along with hospitals and pharmacies that are conducting their own vaccination efforts, yet only one of the mass-vaccination sites is located in Quiñones-Sánchez’s district.

“The newly announced sites were intended to help fill in gaps throughout the city. Our invitations to clinics continue to be specifically targeted toward zip codes that have the lowest rate of vaccinations,” Garrow said.

According to the City’s website, zip codes 19134 (Port Richmond and Harrowgate), 19133 (Kensington and Fairhill), and zip codes to the north have a stark difference in vaccination rates to nearby neighborhoods of Fishtown and Northern Liberties.

Zip Code 19133, for instance, is among the lowest vaccinated in all of Philadelphia. 

It has a vaccination rate of 749 per 10,000 residents, compared to 19125 (Fishtown) which has a rate of 4,593 per 10,000 residents. Only about 5.2% of Hispanics and Latinos, compared to 53.6% of white residents have been vaccinated. 

To help cut the disparity, Quiñonez Sánchez says she is advocating for FEMA to open another mass-vaccination center closer to her constituents in lower Northeast Philadelphia. 

“The Community Academy Center is a start but it is not enough,” she says, especially since the city will soon begin phase 1c of the vaccination. 

The councilmember suggests the need for a daily vaccination center for those who are the most vulnerable in the underrepresented zip codes. 

“Frankly, we should not have had to wait this long. The city process has been bumpy, disorganized, and without a strategy to reach at-risk communities. This cannot continue. We must set actionable goals and then hold ourselves accountable for reaching them.” she said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with statements from Esperanza and FEMA.

This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among more than 20 news organizations focused on economic mobility in Philadelphia. Read all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.

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