Convention Center mega-site to open Wednesday

SEPTA employees and essential city workers were inoculated Tuesday, March 2, at the FEMA mass vaccination site at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians are expected to descend on the Pennsylvania Convention Center in the coming weeks, as the facility has been transformed into a military-staffed mass inoculation site.

Several thousand SEPTA workers and essential city employees were vaccinated against the novel coronavirus there on Tuesday, in what officials described as the Convention Center’s “soft launch.”

On Wednesday at 8 a.m., it will open to the public with the intention of inoculating 6,000 residents a day through April 30. The site will be open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

“This impressive operation will go a long way in helping us deliver the vaccine to Philadelphians who actually really need it,” said Mayor Jim Kenney, who toured the location Tuesday with Alejandro Mayorkas, the newly-appointed U.S. homeland security secretary.

Since the site primarily employs uniformed members of the armed services, city health staff will be freed up to run smaller neighborhood clinics, Kenney added.

All doses distributed at the Convention Center will be in addition to the city’s weekly allotment, which currently stands at around 37,000.

Mayor Jim Kenney (center) and Secretary of U.S. Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas (right) tour the FEMA mass vaccination site at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

There are no walk-ups. People will be invited to schedule an appointment through the city’s vaccine interest form, and the site is only open to Philadelphia residents.

In nearly all cases, those invitations are coming through email, and the Convention Center has already had to turn away people who were not eligible for a vaccine under Phase 1A or 1B of the city’s vaccine roll-out.

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said officials are hoping for a fix that will make it so the appointment links cannot be shared. The city is using technology recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he added.

For right now, city leaders are discouraging people from forwarding the invites to friends and family members and warning that appointments could be canceled.

“The first thing I would suggest is what the Sisters of Mercy taught me in grade school,” Kenney said. “Examine your conscience and not try to jump the line and have some self-respect and understand that people who you’re jumping the line on are old and sick and may die as a result of this.”

More than 250,000 people have been added to the city’s vaccine database. To sign up, go to www.phila.gov/vaccineinterest. Those without internet access can call 311 to register.

Phase 1B incorporates residents 75 and older, people with certain chronic medical conditions and essential workers in a number of industries.

In sending out the invitations, officials have said people will be favored if they live in zip codes where fewer residents have been vaccinated so far. Most of those areas are in North Philadelphia and the Lower Northeast, according to the health department data.

About 24,000 people have been contacted to set up a time at the Convention Center for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Farley said.

A man is inoculated Tuesday, March 2, at the FEMA mass vaccination site at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Center City. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Mayorkas said immigration authorities will not be conducting enforcement operations at or near the vaccination site.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is operating the Convention Center clinic as part of a 10-city pilot program lasting eight weeks with the intention of reaching vulnerable neighborhoods.

“We are evaluating the pilot and will make decisions during that time on whether we will continue in certain locations or potentially expand,” Acting FEMA Deputy Administrator MaryAnn Tierney said.

The entrance to the vaccination center is at the northeast corner of 12th and Arch streets. People who make an appointment should bring identification or a piece of mail to prove they live in the city.

Three nearby parking garages — Autopark at the Fashion District, Parkway Broad and Race, and Parkway 12th and Filbert — will be offering discounted two-hour rates for people who show their vaccination card.

Parking meters won’t be enforced in the immediate area surrounding the site, though some spots will be designated for pick-up and drop-off only.

SEPTA will be offering free parking at the Fern Rock, Fox Chase and Torresdale Regional Rail stations.

Case counts stalling?

Philadelphia has recorded decreasing COVID-19 case counts for weeks, but Farley said he worries that trend could be flattening.

Last week, the city averaged 241 cases a day with a 3.5% positive test rate, similar to the prior week’s 242 daily cases and 4%.

“I’m concerned that the previous decline that we’ve been seeing may be stalling,” Farley said during a virtual briefing Tuesday. “I’m seeing that case counts have been rising in the past week in New York, New Jersey and Delaware.”

Officers reported 352 confirmed cases, 54 probable infections and 11 virus-related fatalities Tuesday, raising the city’s death toll to 3,112 since the beginning of the pandemic.

J&J vaccine to target homebound, transient

Farley said he is going to recommend providers who receive the newly-approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine reach out to homebound residents and people who are transient.

About 13,000 doses of J&J’s one-shot vaccine, which received federal approved Saturday, are set to arrive this week in Philadelphia, but city officials have been told not to expect any more for the next few weeks.

The doses, Farley said, should go initially to people who are hard to reach or who may find it physically difficult to come in for a second appointment.

When more shipments arrive, J&J’s shots will begin being distributed to other populations, he added.

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