(Image via The Philadelphia Gay News).
By Sebastian Fortino
PHILADELPHIA — Nearly 900,000 Philadelphians have been vaccinated for COVID-19 according to data gathered by city health officials, but local organizations are continuing to go into neighborhoods and provide grassroots level education and administer vaccines.
Philadelphia FIGHT is one such organization who is going into communities where access and education regarding the vaccines is most needed, and they plan to continue until at least mid-August. Their outreach has been overwhelmingly inclusive with vaccination drives in Kensington, Norris Square, South Philadelphia, and Germantown. Other events have targeted homeless individuals who may be less likely to engage with or have access to health care, as well as non-native speakers of English. This outreach has also extended to African-American, Latinx individuals, and low-income communities.
“FIGHT has operated COVID vaccination programs at all of our clinical sites including the Lax Center and the John Bell Health Center since vaccines became available. In addition, we have offered vaccinations in communities with limited access, or in environments where we have hoped people would feel more secure,” said Jane Shull, CEO of FIGHT.
“We also partnered with more than half a dozen community-based organizations throughout neighborhoods in Philadelphia to provide spaces for vaccination and inform the community of the days we and SunRay [Specialty Pharmacy] would be there.”
While nearly half the population of Philadelphia has been fully vaccinated, many people have only the first of their two doses. FIGHT, like other organizations, has seen demand for vaccines drop since the start of summer.
Shull and FIGHT describe this as unfortunate because there is a resurgence in COVID cases among unvaccinated people in the U.S., and Philadelphia has not yet reached the numbers needed to protect the community from the Delta variant.
“But because of the sharp drop-off in demand, our intention at this time is to close our community vaccination program sometime around mid-August,” Shull explained, “but we will not close our program at FIGHT’s clinics. We will continue to vaccinate patients at all of our clinical sites.”
With so many people doing their part in getting vaccinated, in-person gatherings have largely returned. The Gayborhood bars are packed on weekends. Parks offering views of the Fourth of July fireworks hosted many families on blankets. Institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art are welcoming day-trippers and patrons.
Larry Benjamin, Director of Communications at the Mazzoni Center, said convenience seems to be a key reason making patients more amenable to getting their vaccine. The non-profit also has also hosted several in-the-field, community-based vaccination events. While patients coming into the center for an in-person visit may be more likely to receive their injection after speaking with providers. The center has personalized care even more when it’s necessary.
“We had one woman get a shot and then wanted her husband to get vaccinated but he couldn’t leave the bodega he ran, so our providers went to the store and vaccinated him,” Benjamin shared proudly. “We’ve also done home vaccination visits. Again, we find the easier and more convenient you can make it to get the shot, the more uptake you’ll see.”
All this access — whether at a pharmacy offering the injection, or a local vaccination site — seems to be working.
“Our average new cases steadily dropped throughout the month of June, so we didn’t see any bump from Memorial Day or the start of summer,” James Garrow, Communications Director of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health reported.
But, there is still work to be done. Alvin Kingcade, the Clinic Practice Manager of Bebashi – Transition to Hope, said people who are eligible but under the age of 30 seem less likely to get the vaccine due to what they’ve heard from friends or read on social media, while Garrow reports a lower number of individuals seeking out the injection are African-Americans aged 18 to 44.
However, this may stem from very real concerns based on the medical establishment and their history related to the Black community, according to Sherita Golden, vice president and chief diversity officer at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
“People of color, along with immigrants and differently-abled men and women have endured centuries of having their trust violated,” Golden wrote in an article. “We need to give people the facts about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, and renew their trust toward health care in general.”
Greater education among populations will have to be fostered to improve vaccine rates. But, at least at this stage of COVID-19 vaccinations and steadily dropping numbers of new cases, there is much to celebrate about the vaccine’s efficacy. The challenge now remains to vaccinate a larger percentage of the population.
“For the last couple of weeks, Philadelphia has been averaging between 24 and 28 new cases per day,” Garrow said. “We’d love to see that number continue to drop, but it seems to have plateaued.”
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