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Philadelphia's Department of Public health began allowing walk-ins at the federally run vaccination site at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Center City on Mar. 17. 

Credit: Alex Neier

Numerous Penn and Drexel University students have received the COVID-19 vaccine despite being ineligible under current Philadelphia vaccine distribution guidelines, city officials confirmed to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

Philadelphia Department of Public Health spokesperson James Garrow said the city's decision to begin allowing walk-ins on March 17 at the Federal Emergency Management Agency-run site in the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Center City has shown signs of early success in improving the racial equity of its COVID-19 vaccine distribution. It has also, however, led to a large number of local college students receiving the vaccine, despite lacking qualifications required under current Philadelphia regulations. 

While the city cannot entirely confirm that students are lying in order to receive the vaccine, Garrow said he has seen social media posts from students instructing others on "the lines to use and the phrases to say" in order to get the vaccine at the FEMA clinic.

On average, the FEMA clinic gives out 6,000 vaccines a day — 3,000 of which are for scheduled appointments and the other 3,000 of which are for walk-ins, Garrow said. Garrow added that of the approximately 3,000 vaccines given each day to walk-ins, a significant amount of vaccines have been administered to students, many of whom do not qualify for the vaccine at this time.

Currently, only people who are included in Phases 1A and 1B of distribution and also live in one of 22 under-vaccinated zip codes — including 19104, which contains Penn's campus — are eligible to receive the vaccine, regardless of whether or not they sign up online or do a walk-in. Phases 1A and 1B include hospital staff, first responders, childcare workers, education providers, people ages 75 and older, and people with high-risk medical conditions.

Garrow explained that those walking up and attempting to receive the vaccine are first asked to prove their residency in one of the 22 zip codes using any document that shows both their name and zip code. Garrow said the next question is whether or not they are eligible under Phases 1A or 1B. They are not, however, asked to supplement their answer with any sort of official documentation.

Garrow said FEMA believes that "people who are [receiving the vaccine while ineligible] are significantly degrading operations."

"We understand that everyone wants to be vaccinated, but the system in place is what will get us back to normal," Garrow said. "We appreciate the desire to get vaccinated, but we are operating under a system in which there are not enough vaccines for everyone, and we need to vaccinate the people at the highest risk first."

FEMA Region 3 Community Preparedness Officer Charles Elison said that he understands why people are frustrated and looking to expedite a return to normalcy after over a year of pandemic-altered life. He urged students, as well as other Philadelphia residents, to remain patient and honest about which phase they qualify to receive the vaccine under.

"Some people may take it upon themselves to exaggerate or flat-out lie about a medical condition, as well as about Philadelphia residency," Elison said. "People are going to try to get the vaccine any way they can — even by lying and distorting the truth. "

Garrow added that the city has no plans to implement any sort of Phase 1A or 1B documentation requirement, despite the significant number of students who have received the vaccine without qualifying. 

"We worry that for many people in [Phases 1A and 1B] — particularly in those target groups that we really want to make sure we are vaccinating — [they] don't have routine or easy access to medical care to get a letter from their doctors certifying they have a certain condition," Garrow said.

Garrow added that the city is "dependent on people's good will" when it comes to residents answering whether or not they qualify honestly.

While the decision to open walk-ins to the 22 significantly under-vaccinated zip codes has not been flawless, given the students' actions, it has already shown signs of improving the racial equity of the vaccine rollout.

During two days of walk-ins on Wednesday and Thursday, Garrow said white residents made up 36.7% of vaccine recipients at the FEMA site, down from 57.7% between March 1 and March 7. Black and Hispanic residents made up 19.5% and 16.1% of recipients, respectively, up from 12.9% and 10.6%.

Garrow said the initial results of the walk-in process and the shrinking racial disparity are encouraging news, but Penn and other local students — as well as others who are ineligible to receive the vaccine — taking advantage of the new procedure is disheartening.

"We get that people want to get the vaccine and get it now, but we want people to ask themselves: Is their being vaccinated really worth some 65-year-old grandmother who has medical conditions not getting the vaccine?" Garrow said. "Because if she gets COVID-19, she'll likely end up in a hospital on a ventilator, so is their decision to skip ahead in the line truly really worth putting people at risk of death?"