Philadelphia Department of Public Health officials announced last Wednesday that all adults would be eligible for free COVID-19 vaccinations as the city officially marks the move into Phase 2 of its virus response effort.
The announcement comes slightly ahead of schedule and reflects the increase in both the quantity and newfound availability of vaccine doses, as well as the drop in demand thanks to the work of volunteers and non-profit organizations who have contributed to rising vaccination rates.
In the months leading up to these announcements about public vaccine progress, dosage appointments were largely still exclusive for those deemed to be low risk in the Philadelphia area. In need of an alternative, many people sought out their own ways of getting vaccinated and found one through social media.
Flora Guidotti, of Yardley, PA, has dedicated countless hours of her time scheduling vaccine appointments for those in need. A retired nurse and public school teacher, Guidotti has been able to book appointments for over a dozen people per week. While first starting with friends, family, past students, and colleagues, she says that she found the inspiration to help more people through a local Facebook group called the PA COVID Vaccine Match Maker.
“I almost shouted when I found the [PA COVID Vaccine] Match Maker website,” Guidotti said. “After seeing how many people were talking there, helping each other out…it all just felt inspirational. It made all that time on the computer seem worthwhile…like a practice before the real thing.”
The Facebook group, PA COVID Vaccine Match Maker, aims to connect volunteers and local residents into an effective network for scheduling and keeping vaccine appointments for those eligible in Pennsylvania. Started by Dr. Christine Meyer of Downingtown, PA in February, the Match Maker page has now grown to over 63,000 members online and has aided in the vaccination of thousands of Pennsylvanians.
“In 24 hours, my practice has received over a thousand emails from people needing help scheduling a COVID vaccine,” Meyer posted on Facebook. “We have also gotten hundreds of emails from people willing to help those who don’t have access or the ability to schedule these appointments. This group is meant to connect people wanting COVID vaccines but struggling to get appointments with resources to help. THAT IS IT. It is not meant to be a medical advice forum or place to lay down personal or political views. Please share with your communities. Our practice can’t support everyone, but our practice COMMUNITY can do so much.”
The page is managed by a team of volunteer administrators who post updates facilitate the expansive network. When prospective members come to the page, the administrators ask whether they are looking for a vaccine or volunteering to help; what the group calls Seekers and Finders.
Anybody who needs a vaccine and hasn’t been able to find one can register in the group as a Seeker, indicating their need for help in finding an appointment. Those with skills in public health, organizing, or IT who wish to aid the appointment-making efforts join the group as Finders.
“If ANYONE has time, a computer, a phone, and PATIENCE please join this group,” Meyer wrote. “We have so many people in need of help and only a few helpers. ANY help would make a difference. Join, write a post about your willingness to help and use ‘#finder’. If you need help please do the same and use ‘#seeker’. The only way through this nightmare is together.”
This local page is far from the only social media group dedicated to helping distribute the vaccine. Since February, similar pages and groups have been formed on Facebook and other social media sites across the country to remedy the difficulties people have faced in finding appointments.
Those efforts are clearly appreciated in the countless posts which thank Finders in various vaccine groups for their help, but why were they needed in the first place? Why has it been so difficult to find, make and keep a vaccine appointment even as officials widen eligibility?
Part of the problem has been the fragile structure of the vaccine itself. Doses from Pfizer and Moderna are delivered in two vials: the vaccine itself and a separate, activating agent. The latter can remain at room temperature, but the vaccine vials must be kept at freezing temperatures until ready to use and cannot be refrozen or refrigerated long-term once thawed. After the two compounds are mixed together into an active vaccine dose, that timeframe shrinks considerably more. Because of this, health care providers can only prepare so many doses at a time without risking waste, which has led to complex scheduling and notification systems or appointments.
Emily Petty, RN, who has been administering vaccines at the Rite Aid in Fairless Hills, PA for the last several months, described this issue as one of the biggest obstacles to proper distribution.
“Once we take them (Pfizer vaccine doses) out of the freezer, they only stay usable for an average of five days in the fridge and we can’t just re-freeze them,” Petty said. “After getting those doses ready for the next appointments, that shelf-life comes down to about six hours. We rotate between prepping and administering them as best we can, but we don’t have the staff to keep that going around the clock.”
Another issue in vaccine distribution is mistrust in the health system as well as the media’s coverage of the virus. Disinformation about COVID-19, mask-wearing, and the available types of vaccination has plagued public health officials since last year and scandals related to the vaccine rollout have given it more credibility. These theories persist online and in certain publications, but public officials from City Hall to the White House have made numerous strides to regain trust and change negative perceptions.
At the local level, Philadelphia’s Public Health Department is now offering free, federally supplied vaccines to all adults and is considering providing stable funding for to non-profit organizations fighting COVID-19, most notably the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, which has continuously proven to be one of the most effective vaccinators in the area. At one point the group even doubled the rate of inoculations delivered by the City.
At the state level, Pennsylvania has revamped their public health website to include countless new data sets and user-friendly resources to learn more about COVID-19 and how to get a vaccine.
Most tangibly, the federal government’s deployment of multiple medical personnel teams from the US Army, Navy, and Marines in big cities like Philadelphia have boosted the area’s efforts by administering thousands of vaccine doses. The US Marines operating the FEMA vaccine site at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, where a line of expectant individuals could be seen waiting for a vaccine each day until recently, have long exceeded their goal of 6,000 dose deliveries per day. Despite the recent downturn in demand, the soldiers and sailors there will are still offering walk-ins and appointments. They will remain in position at full capacity until called back by those in Washington.
The increase of public vaccine supplies and support from state and federal agencies have surely contributed to the widening availably of appointments, but the less glamourous work of getting vaccines to those in need on an individual level, largely done by volunteers, filled the gaps left by during the rough phases of the public vaccine rollout.
Book a free vaccine appointment through Philadelphia Department of Public Health here.