Philadelphia's most vulnerable still priority for COVID-19 vaccine, says deputy health commissioner

By KYW Newsradio

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) -- Operation Warp Speed is making a big change to federal COVID-19 vaccination guidelines to help more Americans get protection against the coronavirus more quickly. They are recommending that health care providers give out all vaccine doses as they get them, rather than holding back half for recipients' second injections.

Philadelphia's deputy health commissioner, Dr. Caroline Johnson, says the change has pros and cons, from the city's perspective.

"The idea of releasing more vaccine, of course, is greatly to our advantage. We've been really trying to get as much vaccine as we can into the city," Johnson told KYW Newsradio's Ian Bush on Wednesday morning.

"The second piece of that is they announced that they may be linking the number of doses released to how quickly we can distribute those doses to eligible populations. And Philadelphia is doing very well in that regard."

However, Johnson said, there is a downside to the announcement in the implication that federal health officials want to lift many of the priority restrictions.

"They're now saying we should vaccinate anyone over the age of 65, anyone in an essential job and anyone with an underlying illness. That is a massive number of people in Philadelphia, as it is across the country, and that is going to put a drain on people who are able to give the vaccinations," she said.

She said it also runs the risk of pushing health care providers to vaccinate people who have a lower risk of contracting the virus or dying from it.

"So I'm not sure we're really comfortable with completely lifting restrictions and priority groups the way we've done it," she said. "We've always said we've got to get to the most vulnerable populations first."

Johnson said the Department of Public Health will wait until the Biden administration takes over before making any changes to the city's vaccination procedures.

"We will be granted some flexibility. These are not rules written in stone," she said. "And I think local jurisdictions can adapt what they think is going to be most effective for their site."

People over 65, and people with serious health conditions that could dangerously complicate a COVID-19 diagnosis, might want the vaccine as soon as possible. When? When would you see that group getting it? Knowing that it's logistically challenging to get all those shots and arms,

Johnson said Philadelphia will move into Phase 1B of vaccination distribution soon, targeting essential workers and of persons over the age of 75 with chronic diseases. She says the city is hoping to make the shift by February.

"It's still gonna be a slow roll out," she said, because of the sheer numbers of eligible people in the next phase -- an estimated 400,000.

And beyond that, she said, it is impossible to know when every Philadlephia who wants a shot will be able to get one, because the rate of vaccine distribution depends on drug manufacturers and the CDC.

But she said large-scale vaccination clinics -- such as as stadiums or convention centers -- will play a huge role in that phase. They will be popping up across the city in the coming months, she said.

Johnson emphasized that mass-vaccination clinics are not yet open to the public, and people cannot simply queue up outside to get a shot. After high-risk populations are seen to, she said, vaccination opportunities for members of the remaining general public will be pre-appointed.