Earlier this week, Penn announced it is planning for in-person, on-campus instruction for the fall semester, citing the increasing availability of COVID-19 vaccines nationwide as a large reason for its optimism.
Top University administrators wrote that President Joe Biden's March 11 promise to make every adult in the United States eligible for vaccination by May 1, as well as his projection that there will be enough vaccines for every adult in the United States by the end of May, have allowed the University to be hopeful regarding in-person instruction. Philadelphia health officials also predicted that the city will be able to meet Biden's goal and vaccinate a majority of residents by July.
But what exactly does all of this mean for members of the Penn community, and what should they do after receiving the vaccine? The Daily Pennsylvanian has answers to all of those questions and more — here is everything you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
Where does Philadelphia's vaccination process stand right now?
Currently in Philadelphia, the vaccine is available to people in phases 1A and 1B, which includes essential frontline and healthcare workers, people working and residing in congregate settings, people 65 years and older, and people with high-risk medical conditions.
These phases only apply to people living in Philadelphia, not the state as a whole, because Philadelphia receives its vaccine supply directly from the federal government, giving the city more freedom in determining its vaccine distribution.
A central aspect of Philadelphia's plan is including people under 75 years old with certain health conditions and some essential workers in phase 1B, when they would be vaccinated in phase 1C under state guidelines. As a result, Philadelphia can cater to its population of people of color and low-income residents, which is larger than elsewhere in Pennsylvania.
These health conditions are more common in people of color and in low-income residents, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said at a weekly briefing.
What would a potential vaccination rollout on campus look like?
Penn still has yet to receive word from the city regarding when it may receive an allotment of vaccines. In addition to the timeline, many of the logistics regarding a potential vaccine rollout at Penn — including potential vaccination sites, vaccine storage facilities, and how students would register to receive the vaccine — remain up in the air.
Setting up the physical infrastructure not only to vaccinate thousands of people within the Penn community, but also to keep track of their medical records, is nothing short of a herculean task in and of itself, Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé said. The Penn health system, Penn Wellness, and Penn Medicine are already working in conjunction to prepare for mass vaccinations regardless of the specific type of vaccine the University may receive.
Vaccinations for faculty and staff will be conducted in partnership with the Penn health system, while Penn Wellness will handle student vaccinations, Dubé said. Specifics about vaccination plans are yet to be determined.
Dubé also explained the first step in answering any of these logistical questions is knowing which type of vaccine the Penn community will receive from the the city. This, he explained, leads to even more specifics that need to be worked out.
"We actually don't get to decide [which vaccine we get]," Dubé said. "We don’t have a calendar of 'you will get this, and this is when you will get it,' so there are all of these uncertainties we are juggling with, but behind the scenes, we’re preparing to be able to administer vaccines."
The three vaccines currently in circulation — Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson — each have different requirements for the number of doses that are necessary for full vaccination, the required length of time in between doses, and necessary storage methods.
“There are all these permutations that we have to plan for, and we have to be flexible,” Dubé said.
What should students do until it's their turn to be vaccinated?
The short answer: Wait your turn and be patient.
Director of Campus Health Ashlee Halbritter said that the benefits associated with being vaccinated are not a reason for students to cut the line or jump ahead of those who are mandated by the city to receive the vaccine first.
"We at Penn, and maybe even across the city, could absolutely see a reduction in case counts in general if we vaccinated our college student population," Halbritter said. "But guess what? We’ve still had a lot of positive cases with almost zero hospitalizations in our students, and that’s not the case for all of the other groups that fall into the 1A, 1B, and 1C categories.”
Although the vaccine is proven to reduce the likelihood of death or hospitalization in those exposed to COVID-19, it is still unclear whether or not it reduces transmission of the virus post-exposure, making it essential for those at higher risk to be first in line before college-age students, who are statistically at a lower risk of death or hospitalization due to exposure.
If students have the chance to get the vaccine — without breaking the city's regulations — whether due to underlying health conditions or other circumstances, Dubé said they should absolutely get it.
"Be resourceful, but patient at the same time — don't get carried away, and please don't cut the line," Dubé said.
What should Penn students do after being vaccinated?
Given that the majority of Penn students and local community members are unvaccinated, Dubé said it is unlikely that Penn's current public health guidelines for vaccinated community members will change before the end of the spring semester, even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shifted their guidelines in early March.
According to the CDC's new guidelines, fully vaccinated people can visit other fully vaccinated or low-risk, unvaccinated people from a single household indoors without wearing masks, and they do not need to quarantine or get tested after a known exposure if they are asymptomatic — this provides much-needed clarity regarding what fully vaccinated people are safe to do.
The CDC recommends that fully vaccinated people should also continue to wear masks and practice physical distancing in public and while visiting with unvaccinated people who are at high risk or are from multiple households. Additionally, those who are fully vaccinated should still avoid medium- and large-sized in-person gatherings.
Earlier in the semester, Penn shifted its guidelines for fully vaccinated students, faculty, and staff, no longer requiring them to quarantine after exposure to known cases or after travel as long as they remain asymptomatic and are within three months following the last dose. Fully vaccinated members of the Penn community are still required to get tested regularly in an effort to minimize COVID-19 transmission.
“We’re at a critical point. It’s frustrating because we’re almost there; we’re almost reaching the finish line, but this is not when we need to start breaking the rules and taking chances, so our public health guidance, as of now, will likely not change,” Dubé said.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.