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Penn students not eligible for Phases 1A and 1B of the vaccine distribution have received vaccines at The Federal Emergency Management Agency vaccination site.

Credit: Chase Sutton

With the city now offering walk-in opportunities amid its vaccine rollout, Penn students are finding ways to get vaccinated in Philadelphia — some eligible, and some not.

In Philadelphia, COVID-19 vaccines are currently available to city residents in Phases 1A and 1B of distribution, which includes hospital staff, first responders, childcare workers, education providers, people ages 75 and older, and people with high-risk medical conditions. Some Penn students have been able to receive their vaccines from the The Federal Emergency Management Agency vaccination site located at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Center City. 

Philadelphia uses a third-party platform called PrepMod to manage vaccine appointment scheduling and registration, WHYY reported, and while these links are intended to be invitation-only, they have been passed around to people who do not yet qualify. WHYY reported that, according to the Philadelphia Health Department, any FEMA vaccine clinic appointments made by ineligible people will be canceled. 

Some students chose to stand in long lines outside the site, waiting for spare vaccines left at the end of the day in case of any appointment cancellations. Others, whether they were eligible or not, managed to book a vaccination appointment online through a link offering appointment schedules.

The process to book an appointment online did not mention any eligibility requirements, a College sophomore, who requested anonymity, said. She received the vaccine on March 7 at the FEMA site despite being ineligible.

“I was under the impression that it was open to all — to be frank, I don’t think I am qualified [for 1A and 1B phases], and on the link to sign up there were no qualifications that you had to specifically check off,” she said, adding that the site itself was “extremely well organized.”

Jeanette Montgomery, a FEMA worker at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, told The Daily Pennsylvanian on March 7 that any eligible Philadelphia resident will continue to be offered the vaccine. She emphasized, however, that other people outside of Philadelphia cannot come down to the site and try to get vaccinated.

Montgomery said she remains optimistic about the vaccine operation, highlighting that, despite an increase in missed appointments, 6,000 doses are being administered daily to high-risk individuals in downtown Philadelphia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on March 16 that about 72.1 million people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the New York Times. But vaccine eligibility continues to vary from state to state, and in Pennsylvania, the rollout varies by county. 

“There is a continuous flow of people," Montgomery said. "They’re a little apprehensive when they see the line but then they realize that the social distancing of six feet apart plays a part in how far the distance is. And we have gotten to the point where people are in and out in 40 minutes.” 

Engineering and College sophomore Julia Lottman, a volunteer at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia who has asthma, was able to be vaccinated at the FEMA site in early March. Though Lottman, who previously had COVID-19, qualified to be vaccinated under the city's guidelines due to her employment status, she noted that many other Penn students were also able to get vaccinated at the site in early March despite being ineligible, which she says could be due to the relaxed screening process for eligibility requirements at the site itself. 

“It's honestly pretty easy for people who aren't necessarily eligible to get vaccinated [there]," Lottman said. "I think, honestly, that it's better that more people are getting vaccinated rather than less, but I also hope that it is not hindering [Philadelphia's] ability to vaccinate the people who do really need it most."

Like Lottman, Susan Ellenberg, a professor of Biostatistics at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, mentioned that there are some added safety benefits that an increased volume of Penn students getting vaccinated could bring to campus. She cautioned, however, that equity concerns must be taken into account during the city’s vaccine rollout process.

“I know some people might be frustrated about why some are able to get vaccinated before others, especially when you hear stories like, ‘My 81-year-old mother hasn’t been able to get vaccinated yet,’ and so we should certainly be trying to make things as equitable as possible with vaccine distribution,” Ellenberg said. “But, there's also an advantage to just getting as many people vaccinated as possible.” 

College first year Lia Enriquez, who was vaccinated in early March and was eligible to do so under current city guidelines, said that she believes there will definitely be a negative impact on the surrounding West Philadelphia community due to the volume of Penn students taking vaccines from the local sites, and flouting eligibility requirements in doing so.

“If you’re a Penn student, then you’re able to utilize the University's testing program twice a week and mitigate the spread easily, whereas for a lot of the West Philadelphians that work service jobs and frontline positions, it's not as easy,” Enriquez said. 

She added that Penn students who are jumping the line to get vaccinated should be mindful of the consequences for local residents, specifically on communities of color.

The pandemic has had a disproportionately large effect on communities of color, both in Philadelphia and in the nation at large. Last May, the City of Philadelphia released data citing that Black people accounted for at least 46.9% of the city’s cases while accounting for about 44% of the city's population.

While Enriquez spoke about the disproportionate impact of the virus on West Philadelphia residents, other students, who still went to receive the vaccine despite being ineligible, attributed their ability to get the vaccine to their privilege as Penn students with more free time and less domestic responsibilities in comparison to local residents. 

Some students received the vaccine by walking into the site, without having an appointment or showing proof of eligibility.   

College junior Rachel Zaff and College senior Emily Gliklich, who were both eligible under Phase 1B due to their employment status, said they were both able to get vaccinated after receiving a text message from a friend that notified them that extra vaccines were available at the FEMA site earlier this month.  

Gliklich said that, while she is glad they were both able to get vaccinated earlier this month and feels lucky to have been given the opportunity, the experience made her more aware of the equity issues with the vaccine rollout. Though Gliklich and Zaff attributed their vaccination to luck, the two also noted that their privilege as Penn students may have been what allowed them to receive the vaccine in the first place.  

“We're able to drop our homework or whatever we're doing on a weekend and run over to the FEMA site when we hear that there are extras, but there are a lot of people in West [Philadelphia] who have work on the weekends and these other responsibilities that can't just head over the moment they hear [there are extra vaccines],” Gliklich said. 

George S. Pepper Professor of Public Health and Preventive Medicine in Biostatistics and Epidemiology Harold Feldman said that he believes the remedy for organizing the rollout system should extend beyond just monitoring students to make sure they are not “gaming the system.”

The solution, according to Feldman, is to have the city's public health initiatives reach vulnerable populations such as the elderly and socioeconomically advantaged because those people might have some doubts about the safety of actually going to local sites and getting vaccinated. 

Ultimately, Penn students who received the vaccine, whether they qualified or not, acknowledged a privilege gap between themselves and members of the Philadelphia community.

"This system is definitely flawed, and we're very grateful that we were able to get vaccinated, but I am sure that it could be done in a more equitable way," Gliklich said.

Correction: A previous version of this article was headlined and framed in such a way that assumed that a majority of the students quoted in the article received the COVID-19 vaccine despite being ineligible, when, in fact, four of the five students quoted were actually eligible under current local guidelines. These four students did not, however, receive a link from the city inviting them to book a vaccination appointment. The headline and text of this story have been updated accordingly. The DP regrets this error.