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A shipment of the Pfizer/BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine is delivered to Pennsylvania Hospital. Penn's administration recently prioritized vaccinating its educational staff over its frontline workers.

Credit: Courtesy of Penn Medicine

Penn's Perelman School of Medicine is prioritizing vaccinating employees who do not have direct patient contact in the second phase of vaccine distribution, defying Philadelphia's prioritization plans but aligning with federal recommendations.

While Philadelphia places higher-education employees in phase 1C of vaccine distribution, the Medical School sent an email to its staff on Jan. 12 stating that the school is placing employees in phase 1B, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. The email outlined a plan to schedule vaccine appointments for faculty, postdoctoral fellows, staff, and students who are not engaged in patient care or enrolling patients in clinical research studies.

The Medical School cited the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for phase 1B in the email. Penn's Chief Medical Officer P.J. Brennan told the Inquirer that the institution is working closely with the city, but following CDC guidelines for Medical School staff. 

"We are giving out the vaccines in the most ethical, safest, and quickest way possible," Penn Medicine wrote in a Jan. 19 statement. "Our ultimate goal is to ensure that everyone who wants a vaccine gets it."

Philadelphia's public health agency maintains, however, that Penn cannot circumvent the city's prioritization plans because the Trump administration gave local governments the authority to administer the pandemic response, the Inquirer reported.

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health orders vaccines from the federal government for hospitals to distribute under the city's guidelines, department spokesperson Jim Garrow told the Inquirer. He added that the city would stop ordering vaccines for providers who were "repeatedly and willfully not following the prioritization scheme."

Penn Medicine’s conflict with the City of Philadelphia represents a larger trend in ethical questions surrounding COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Other academic institutions, such as Columbia University, Harvard University, and New York University have also distributed vaccines to employees without front-line worker status, The New York Times reported.

According to the Times, many people who work in hospitals but have no patient contact, like administrators, have already been vaccinated in the first distribution phase — against local guidance. Others with pre-existing health conditions and more vulnerability to the virus must wait until distribution phases 1B or 1C, depending on where they live.