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City Opens Vaccination Clinics In Neighborhoods Ahead Of FEMA's Convention Center Takeover

The city of Philadelphia is finally opening mass vaccination sites to the public this week and next, using an ad hoc mix of real estate with a big assist from the federal government.

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley speaks at the Feb. 23, 2021, opening of the city's first mass vaccination clinic in North Philadelphia, as City Council President Darrell Clarke looks on.

City officials opened the first of three initial sites that will be used to vaccinate eligible members of the general population on Tuesday at the Martin Luther King Older Adult Center in North Philadelphia, near Temple University. Two more sites will open in the coming week, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will open its own, much larger, operation at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Center City. As of now, all four sites will operate by appointment only.

The FEMA-run clinic will occupy the 128K SF Hall F of the convention center, which is on the first floor of the building and has multiple doors that open directly to the street, meeting accessibility requirements the city says are key.

The convention center had been used as a mass clinic before — it was operated by newly formed nonprofit Philly Fighting Covid until controversy and mismanagement led the city to sever ties with the organization. The city then took over the clinic to ensure that those who had received their first dose from PFC were given their second dose on time, after which it vaccinated home health care workers, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said during a virtual news conference on Feb. 16.

Though Pennsylvania Convention Center leadership blocked out the entire Hall F for the vaccination effort at a nominal cost of $1K per day, PFC and then the city's clinics only used about 60% of the space, Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority President and CEO John McNichol told Bisnow. FEMA will use closer to the full space, which still only represents a fraction of the 2.2M SF commonwealth-owned center.

“We’re not making a dime on this, and I don’t intend to,” McNichol said. “I’m just trying to cover the cost as a fiduciary for the taxpayers.”

Medical professionals prepare to open the vaccination clinic at the Martin Luther King Older Adult Center in Philadelphia on Feb. 23, 2021.

Staffed by FEMA and with a vaccine allocation separate from what is distributed to the city and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the clinic will be able to vaccinate 6,000 people per day at full capacity, Farley has said at multiple public news conferences. The opening is scheduled for March 3.

While the feds handle the largest center, the city’s effort is directed at taking the vaccine directly to the neighborhoods that need it most. In scouting sites for the clinics, the city’s Office of Emergency Management tapped into its network of gathering places and public facilities it has compiled for use in natural disasters and other crises. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health then chose the sites based on how they met certain criteria, a department spokesperson told Bisnow:

  • At least 4,700 SF, roughly the size of a basketball gym.

  • Within a quarter-mile of a public transit stop.

  • Easily accessible to the elderly and disabled.

  • Able to move people in and out without bottlenecks.

“There’s been discussion about these large-scale facilities, and that’s all great — drive-thrus, the convention center, etc. — but the people live here,” City Council President Darrell Clarke said at the MLK Older Adult Center, which sits within his district, on Tuesday. “The MLK Older Adult Center is a place they go all year long, or did until the pandemic hit.”

The Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia as of 2014

In addition to the MLK Older Adult Center, the city will open a clinic at the Community Academy of Philadelphia Charter School in Harrowgate on Thursday and the University of the Sciences in West Philadelphia on Saturday, Farley said at a press conference at the opening of the first clinic on Tuesday. Each site will run one day a week to give a first dose, adding a second day in three weeks for second doses.

The MLK Older Adult Center will have eight vaccination stations staffed by two health care professionals each, spaced out across the 2,500 SF main area of the building. Additional space will be used for queuing, sign-in and for a holding area where recipients wait for 15 minutes after receiving the vaccine to monitor for adverse reactions. The clinic can vaccinate 256 people per day, Farley said.

The University of the Sciences will make its 6,345 SF multipurpose room and its 7,556 SF recreation gym available for the West Philly clinic, a spokesperson for the institution told Bisnow. It will contain 10 vaccination stations, and the Harrowgate clinic will have 12, Farley said. Representatives from the Community Academy of Philadelphia Charter School didn't respond to requests for comment.

Eventually, the city plans to operate six sites around the city, but is still in the process of identifying more sites, an OEM spokesperson said. No end date has been set for any of the sites, with the city unsure of how many doses it will receive in any given week. FEMA will likely operate its clinic at the convention center at least into the summer, McNichol said.

The first community members walk into the Martin Luther King Older Adult Center for their appointments to receive the coronavirus vaccine on Feb. 23, 2021.

Over 267,000 total doses of vaccine have been administered in the city without any of these sites as of Tuesday, mostly through hospitals, pharmacies and local health centers. The Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium recently opened a 24-hour, walk-in vaccination center at Temple's Liacouras Center, where people have already lined up to wait for 10 hours or more.

PDPH distributes doses to the Black Doctors Consortium and each of the hospitals and health care providers based on their demonstrated capacity to administer vaccinations, relying on the providers themselves to determine their own space needs. The department encourages private employers to sign up with the city to assist in getting their employees vaccinated, Farley said.

With the anticipated higher pace of vaccination once all the mass clinics are open, the general population could be eligible to get vaccinated in the summer, Farley said.