When states began requesting federal support to advance the COVID-19 vaccination mission, FEMA was quick to respond, readily available to aid communities in need. In Pennsylvania, the City of Philadelphia received FEMA support at two mass vaccination clinics: The Center City Vaccination Center (CCVC), a Type 1 federal pilot Community Vaccination Center, and the Esperanza Community Vaccination Center (ECVC), a Type 2 pilot site in North Philadelphia.
The need for robust community outreach was evident early in FEMA’s mission supporting Philadelphia’s equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and ensuring everyone who wanted a vaccine in Philadelphia had the opportunity to get one. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) social vulnerability index and input from local partners and community stakeholders identified several pockets of undervaccinated communities in Philadelphia that could only be reached through extensive community outreach. In the interest of doing the most good for vulnerable populations and accounting for the presence of a deep digital divide, FEMA leveraged several important tools in support of Philadelphia’s vaccination mission to inform as many people as possible about vaccination opportunities and reduce uncertainty regarding the overall vaccination process.
Even before the CCVC opened at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, FEMA staff supporting the mission hit the streets to distribute Vaccine Interest flyers at community businesses and public facilities and leveraged media and private sector contacts to spread the word. FEMA conducted site assessment surveys and listening sessions with key stakeholders to gather community input on how the CCVC should operate in ways that promoted equitable distribution and mitigated as many accessibility barriers as possible. Through these processes, FEMA Disability Integration Coordinators, Civil Rights Advisors, Logistics Specialists, and several other functional areas worked together to ensure the federally supported vaccination centers in Philadelphia reduced barriers to vaccination.
Caption: FEMA Disability Integration Specialist PJ Mattiacci and Civil Rights Advisor Yoel Lemus lent valuable perspective to the Philadelphia CVC assessment and community need considerations process. Mattiacci, a native Philadelphian, has a deep understanding of Philadelphia’s deaf community, while Lemus, a civil rights attorney, ensured immigrant and non-English speaking communities would have equal access to vaccine opportunities. (Photo by Charlie Elison/FEMA)
Once the Center City Vaccination Center opened on March 3rd, FEMA’s Joint Information Center team took a robust approach to informing the public about vaccine eligibility and the CCVC’s processes. The vaccination process appeared complicated, and while FEMA helped mitigate many barriers, such as transportation (by partnering with SEPTA), providing language interpreters, and supporting access and functional need considerations, many of these processes shaped the community listening sessions and subsequent outreach around the City’s second federally supported CVC, the Esperanza Community Vaccination Center (ECVC), which opened April 9th. The team took a very proactive media engagement approach, leveraged a variety of digital and social media channels, and found speaking engagements and trusted messenger tours particularly impactful.
Caption: FEMA staff assisted in the distribution of flyers like this one with information about what to expect during a visit to the Esperanza Community Vaccination Center. (Photo by FEMA)
Use of trusted messengers as a means of interpersonal communication to complement digital and media engagements is a public health communication best practice. In leveraging community leaders, elected officials, and other credible voices as these trusted messengers, the federally supported vaccination mission in Philadelphia found many advocates to inform and impact communities that would not have been reached through other channels. External Affairs staff at the CCVC conducted more than 30 trusted messenger tours and engagement events with various community-based organizations and faith-based organizations representing a diverse array of the City’s population. Each tour highlighted the federally supported site’s language interpretation capabilities (which generally included a dozen on-site interpreters in at least six languages), nearly 100 wheelchairs, access and functional need considerations, introductions to the site’s Civil Rights and Disability Integration staff, and an overview of the vaccination process itself. The Esperanza Community Vaccination Center included more than 10 such tours, in both English and Spanish. Trusted messengers left the vaccination clinic equipped with thorough knowledge of the process, print and digital collateral, and contact information for staff on site. Several trusted messenger tours resulted in very quick turnarounds on visits by the hosted organizations’ constituents.
Na Doh, a Burmese Karen diaspora community leader in Philadelphia, attended one such trusted messenger tour with her neighbors volunteering with the grassroots collective, Vaccinate South Philly. The following day, she helped lead a dozen Burmese Karen speaking refugees to the CCVC for vaccinations. Thanks to her visit the day prior, she was able to guide others through the process and help FEMA identify additional language support services, along with other key considerations relevant to the Karen-speaking refugee community. Members of that community would have been hesitant to visit a vaccination center staffed by military personnel given the circumstances of their immigration to the U.S. However, thanks to Na Doh meeting military servicemembers and receiving an in-depth overview of the vaccination process, she was confident in the professionalism, friendliness, and positive intent of the site’s uniformed servicemember staff. The Karen community members vaccinated ended up having resoundingly positive feedback about the process and were thankful they took up the opportunity.
Trusted messenger tours at the CCVC focused on elected officials, especially members of Congress and Philadelphia’s City Council, primary care and women’s health care medical providers, university student health services teams, and dozens of community-based and faith-based organizations.
Caption: Congressman Dwight Evans and HHS Regional Director Dr. Dalton Paxman receive a trusted messenger tour of the Center City Vaccination Center in March 2021. (Photo by Heather Anderson/FEMA)
Photo: Charlie Elison, FEMA, leads a Trusted Messenger tour of the CCVC with clinicians from Miriam Medical Clinics, a North Philadelphia-based primary care community medicine practice. Primary care provider partnerships were integral in support of vaccination outreach. (Photo by Rossy Rey-Berrios/FEMA)
In addition to trusted messenger tours of Community Vaccination Centers, Regional FEMA staff stood up a Speaker’s Bureau to support both virtual and in-person outreach to town hall meetings, community events, and grassroots meetings with civic groups and organizations across Philadelphia. FEMA Region 3’s Zane Hadzick led the initiative, with support from FEMA Region 3 Outreach Coordinators and Civil Rights Advisors. The Speaker’s Bureau contacted 282 community organizations offering to speak to them about how to get vaccinated in Philadelphia. By working with community leaders and civic organizations, the Speaker’s Bureau provided outreach materials (flyers, messaging, toolkits, and videos) to diverse audiences in all corners of the City. In the first few weeks of the federally supported vaccination mission, the speaking engagements helped hundreds of Philadelphians better understand the City’s eligibility requirements (which included age, medical risks, and City residency) to receive a vaccine at the Center City Vaccination Center.
Caption: FEMA’s Zane Hadzick presents at a Speaker’s Bureau meeting with Northwood Civic Association in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to assist them in completing the City’s COVID-19 vaccine interest forms. (Photo by Melissa Wiehenstroer/FEMA)
Caption: Zane Hadzick hosts a virtual Speaker’s Bureau engagement with the Upper North Neighbors Association to inform its members about the COVID-19 vaccination process. (Photo by Amanda Garzio-Hadzick/FEMA)
“All of the Speaker’s Bureau outreach was guided by a strategic plan to promote equity and focus on serving undervaccinated and vulnerable populations,” says Hadzick. This plan was accomplished by using data to identify zip codes with the highest incidence of COVID-19 infection and hospitalization as well as the highest rates of poverty. Once eligibility opened up later in the vaccination mission, speaking engagements ensured as many Philadelphians as possible were aware of the increase in vaccination opportunities at both federally supported CVCs, at the City’s 10 city-run vaccination clinics, as well as the 250+ pharmacies, hospitals, primary care clinicians, and community based organization vaccine providers. For in-person speaking events, FEMA staff brought laptops to help people register for a vaccination appointment after the meeting ended or assisted residents over the phone. In cooperation with community leaders and organizations, additional residents were reached via list servs, social media, and media engagements. At least 35 Speaker’s Bureau events later, held either in-person or virtually, FEMA reached more than 500 Philadelphians directly and likely thousands more via print and digital outreach materials.
In early April 2021, FEMA deployed a CDC vaccine outreach epidemiologist, Dr. Meredith Dixon, to Philadelphia for two weeks. She was instrumental in lending strategic outreach input and spearheading the shift from the Center City Vaccination Center’s appointments-only model to allowing a mixed walk-up and appointments model. Additionally, under her recommendations, the CCVC began to work directly with Community-Based Organizations and disability advocacy organizations to directly schedule appointments for vulnerable groups with access and functional needs. These contributions helped CCVC target 22 of the City’s most undervaccinated zip codes for priority appointments, dramatically improving vaccination rates in those communities. Dr. Dixon leveraged CDC vaccine equity best practices in areas with a high social vulnerability index to develop a more comprehensive vaccination outreach strategy.
As the vaccine mission progressed into April, Philadelphia Department of Public Health Data showed several undervaccinated areas of the City. Maggie Dunn, who normally works in FEMA Region 3’s Mitigation Division, took the helm of a new outreach initiative in support of the City. Dunn, an urban planner with local roots, was well versed in Philadelphia communities and neighborhood outreach. She integrated FEMA-supported, multi-agency street teams, in support of the Department of Public Health’s larger outreach strategies, to canvass in high traffic areas quickly and efficiently. These areas often included grocery stores and commercial corridors in the highest risk and most undervaccinated neighborhoods. Each street team was equipped with flyers, vaccine appointment setting capability, and maps of all vaccination sites across the city (not just the two federally supported CVCs). Teams consisted of a FEMA outreach specialist, a Philadelphia Department of Public Health staff member as well as FEMA staff, FEMA Corps, AmeriCorps members, and volunteers from organizations like Sewa.
Dunn piloted outreach at food distribution sites serving some of the City’s most vulnerable communities. She leveraged FEMA’s robust team of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) specialists to take a data-driven approach, combining data sets of high social vulnerability index areas and high traffic commercial corridors in support of targeted outreach.
Caption: Dunn strategizes a canvassing plan with FEMA and FEMA Corps staff in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Andrew Avitt/U.S. Forest Service).
Caption: Maggie Dunn speaks with a SEPTA employee while canvassing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. SEPTA and FEMA partnered to provide free transit passes to residents for whom transportation may be a barrier to accessing the community vaccination clinics. (Photo by Charlie Elison/FEMA)
“As someone whose whole family is from Philadelphia, it was really important to me to get out and connect with the people living here and make sure they have the information they need to get vaccinated,” says Dunn. “It was really impactful to have those one-on-one connections. I felt particularly proud to be able to use my experience to help the city that I love so much.” Over a six-week period, Dunn planned, led and supported more than 70 street team and food distribution site outreach events, engaging more than 4,500 Philadelphians.
With the opening of the Esperanza Community Vaccination Center, in one of the City’s most under-vaccinated zip codes, the outreach mission specifically focused on supporting outreach to Spanish- speaking communities. The City’s community partnership with Esperanza, the CVC’s host site, was instrumental in getting the word out. FEMA took a dynamic approach to outreach there through radio, TV, and social engagements.
In mid-April 2021, vaccine eligibility opened to Phase 2 and outreach teams found that many Philadelphians simply didn’t know how easy it was to get a vaccine. “We did such a good job messaging to wait your turn that I think many folks simply don’t know that it’s your turn. Vaccine eligibility has opened up to everyone. We want to get the word out that the process is simple, quick and efficient, and we want to make sure we are doing our best to inform communities that may be impacted by the digital divide,” said FEMA External Affairs Officer Charlie Elison in a media interview at the Center City Vaccination Center.
Outreach teams also encountered many Philadelphians who had already received their vaccines and were eager to share their stories. When asked how he felt after getting vaccinated against COVID-19, South Philadelphia resident James Coleman said, “One word: freedom. I felt free after I got it. [I had] zero problems.”
Sewa, an Indian American volunteer organization, supported FEMA extensively at the CCVC and ECVC by canvassing in communities. Sewa team members were natural experts distributing flyers in multiple languages and informing Philly’s diverse community members about vaccination opportunities. This is a particularly special mission for Sewa given the COVID-19 crisis at the time in India.
Caption: Sewa volunteers post flyers outside a store while canvassing in North Philadelphia. (Photo by Andrew Avitt/U.S. Forest Service).
Outreach efforts picked up significantly in the final weeks of April as eligibility opened up and traffic at ECVC and the CCVC tapered to get dose 1 of the Pfizer vaccine and the first day to get the Johnson and Johnson (J&J) vaccine at the CCVC. FEMA also took new avenues of approach in partnering with new community and faith-based organizations for partner-specific vaccination events, such as the Esperanza CVC’s Deaf Community Vaccination Day. One deaf vaccine recipient told the staff that he came to the Deaf Vaccination Day event at the word-of-mouth encouragement from a deaf friend who’d been vaccinated there earlier in the day. He hadn’t come prior because he didn’t think vaccine centers would have American Sign Language and Certified Deaf Interpreters. However, his friend quickly let him know the site had several interpreters and there was no reason to wait to get vaccinated. Events like these directly contributed significant upticks in vaccinations, many primarily due to word of mouth encouragement about the ease of the process and regarding the sites’ access and functional need capabilities (like ASL interpreters).
Traditional media engagements, including radio and television, were also important elements of the vaccination outreach mission in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Joint Information Center team worked hard early on to leverage media relationships as an effective mass communications tool, sending critical information to the public about the vaccine process, access and functional need capabilities at the federally supported CVCs, operational details (like opening times and vaccines given), as well as shifts from appointments to walk-up models. Spanish and Portuguese language media outlets were especially important in support of the Esperanza CVC.
Caption: Rossy Rey-Berrios, a FEMA spokesperson, conducts an interview with a Philadelphia Telemundo affiliate, messaging about walk-up vaccination opportunities and the process at the Esperanza Community Vaccination Center. (Photo by Andrew Avitt/U.S. Forest Service)
Max Lovitz-Wolfson, a Spanish and Portuguese interpreter, who works at ECVC, said his connection with the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking community leaders in Philadelphia has helped him spread the word about the vaccine clinic to those who may otherwise have not known about the opportunity. Due to the current circumstances regarding COVID-19 in Brazil, he says Brazilians are particularly interested in getting vaccinated.
“I started posting [on social media] very early on about the Esperanza vaccination mission and community partnerships, trying to get as many people out here as I can,” says Lovitz-Wolfson. “There have been hundreds, if not over a thousand, people from the Brazilian-American community alone that have come to get vaccinated.”
Vaccine outreach in Philadelphia continues to be an all-hands on deck, vitally important aspect of the mission.
The FEMA-supported vaccine outreach mission in Philadelphia was a resounding success thanks to the hard work of FEMA staff members, FEMA Corps, the City of Philadelphia and Department of Public Health, and volunteer organizations like Sewa. Bringing their unique skillsets and perspectives to the table, each person who dedicated their time and energy to this mission played a role in getting vital messaging to the people who needed it most. Each person involved in this outreach went above and beyond to ensure no stone was left unturned with the goal of reaching as many Philadelphians as possible to advance the equitable vaccination mission, ultimately resulting in the administration of more than 350,000 doses between both Community Vaccination Centers.
Caption: A Philadelphia Department of Public Health outreach team member canvasses a few blocks away from the Esperanza CVC in May 2021 (Photo by Andrew Avitt/U.S. Forest Service).