By Harold Brubaker
“One key advantage here is that these organizations are inviting in their own patients,” said Philadelphia health commissioner Tom Farley regarding COVID-19 Vaccines.
Kevin DuBrey had reservations about getting vaccinated against COVID-19 because the vaccines didn’t go through the normal approval process.
But when the doctor he has been seeing for 30 years, the same doctor who takes care of his 86-year-old mother, recommended it for her, DuBrey was sold.
“Then I knew I was comfortable getting it myself,” DuBrey, 63, said Monday after getting his second dose at Fairmount Primary Care Center, a federally qualified health center on Fairmount Avenue near Broad Street.
The clinic, partially funded by the federal government and operated by the nonprofit Delaware Valley Community Health, is one of dozens of safety-net sites in the city that officials are counting on to reach people of color in the medically underserved neighborhoods where they operate.
“One key advantage here is that these organizations are inviting in their own patients. These patients have built up trust with their doctor and nurses over years. They are now listening to the people they trust most to give them advice about the vaccine,” Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said last month, describing the centers as “a key part of our racial equity strategy.”
The strategy seems to be working. As of Feb. 28, nearly two-thirds of the 15,863 vaccines administered by private, nonprofit health centers had gone to African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. For the city as a whole, 54% of doses have gone to whites, and only a third to those three groups. (The remainder include people whose racial identity is not known or is listed as “other.”)
At the same time, clinic operators say that they wish they had more vaccine and that patients have been dealing with long delays.
In communities of color, people are generally more comfortable going to a small, local clinic than to a mass vaccination site, said James Garrow, spokesperson for the city’s health department.
“This is especially true for the Latino community, who have been suffering under threats from ICE and federal authorities,” he said. “When the choice is going to Congreso or Esperanza, where everyone speaks Spanish, or going to the Center City Vaccination Center, which is full of uniformed military, the choice is easy.” Military personnel have been providing security at the Center City site.
To aid the 11 nonprofits that operate federally qualified health centers in Philadelphia, the city Department of Public Health has provided $2 million that is being administered by the Health Federation of Philadelphia, according to Natalie Levkovich, the organization’s chief executive.
Levkovich said the health centers, which in aggregate serve 300,000 Philadelphians, have a different role to play than organizations such as the Black Doctors COVID Consortium.
“The health centers are not positioning themselves as mass vaccination sites on a regular basis because they are continuing to do what they always do, which is provide comprehensive primary care to lots and lots of people,” Levkovich said. “This is a parallel track to vaccination.”
Federally-qualified health centers qualify for funding under the federal Public Health Service Act, and are expected to provide comprehensive services to underserved areas or populations. They accept insurance, but also treat uninsured individuals on a sliding scale. Besides the 11 nonprofits, the city’s nine clinics operate under the same program.
The clinics are reaching out to their existing patients who are highly vulnerable to the virus, but also providing vaccines to other eligible community members. That has led to long waiting lists.
Spectrum Health Services, which has three sites and served 14,000 patients last year, is among those with a backlog of people who have registered on the organization’s website.
“I don’t have enough resources to handle the demand,” said Veronica Hill-Milbourne, Spectrum’s chief executive. “When people register, it is taking us up to seven to 10 days to call people back to verify that they are indeed eligible for the vaccine and to place them on the schedule.”
She said Spectrum’s goal is to provide 1,000 doses a week. It was close to 800 last week, she said, adding that 81% of the people vaccinated by Spectrum are African American.
To vaccinate more patients, some clinics are working with churches.
Sayre Health Center in West Philadelphia, on South 59th Street near Walnut Street, is a relatively small clinic, so it turned to Tabernacle Evangelical Lutheran Church around the corner for help, said Kent Bream, Sayre’s founding medical director.
“We’ve converted their sanctuary into a high-volume vaccine site” where Sayre provides vaccinations by appointment from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, Bream said.
Similarly, Family Practice & Counseling Network, which has three comprehensive sites and two smaller sites, has worked with Triumph Baptist Church, on Hunting Park Avenue near Germantown Avenue, to expand its community reach.
The relationship with the church paid off last week, when Family Practice received 1,200 doses of vaccine, far more than the 200 to 300 it had been receiving.
“We implemented a mass community clinic in three days,” said LaQuesha Garland, operations manager at Family Practice. The organization provided 430 doses at the church Saturday and was able to use all 1,200 doses by having pop-up vaccine clinics at its Abbottsford Falls location, in addition to the normal volume at its clinics, Garland said.
“It was an absolute pleasure and privilege, even though it was daunting, to see a line wrapped around the church of Black and brown people who really wanted this vaccine,” Garland said, “and we worked our hardest to ensure that everybody was able to get it.”