Penn State Health workers work to close the vaccine gap in Harrisburg


Penn State Health workers attacked the coronavirus pandemic story of racial and economic disparities in health care one shot at a time in Harrisburg’s Uptown Saturday afternoon.

Operating a one-day clinic at the system’s medical offices at 2626 N. 3rd St., doctors and nurses administered the first course of the double-dose Moderna vaccine to about 350 eager patients, almost all of them from communities that are typically underserved in the American health care system.

Consider, that of the first 140 people to take the vaccine here today, 46 identified as Hispanic; 36 as Black and 24 as Asian.

That meant more than 75 percent of the recipients were part of the event’s targeted minority communities. That stands in sharp contrast, clinic organizers said, to Penn State Health’s overall vaccination program, which through Monday had seen only about one percent of all shots going to Blacks, about half of a percentage point to Asians, and even less to Latinos.

“It’s not enough. But it’s a big start from Penn State’s standpoint,” said Dr. Stephen Henderson, an internal medicine physician who was helping at the clinic.

The systemwide results, he and others said, are a function of where Penn State’s facilities are, who has access to regular health care, and more specific COVID-19 barriers like language barriers, who has access to the Internet so they can seek vaccination appointments, and a lack of transportation to get to vaccination sites.

Problems in uneven distribution of the vaccine follow pre-existing issues like lack of health insurance or “food deserts” in inner city areas that steer many low-income families to diets that create a higher prevalence of conditions like obesity, high blood pressure or diabetes.

Add it all up, Henderson noted, and minorities have been at risk for the worst COVID-19 has to offer.

The statistical toll bears that out.

A federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet issued earlier this month stated that Black COVID-19 patients are nearly three times as likely as white patients to require hospitalization, and nearly twice as likely to die. The ratios were slightly worse for Latinos.

Doctors and nurses set out to change the course of that narrative Saturday, with the pop-up clinic in Harrisburg, with a pool of shots specifically reserved for people Penn State Health isn’t regularly seeing.

Jeanette Gibbs, senior vice president for ambulatory services, said Penn State asked the state Department of Health for a dedicated supply of vaccine doses to be able to put on the clinic, and developed the patient pool through contacts with local community health centers, historically Black fraternities and sororities, and non-profits like the Salvation Army and the Pennsylvania Immigrant and Refugee Womens’ Network.

Doctors and other staffers worked through those entities in recent weeks first to break down hesitance and build interest in getting the vaccines, and then – when they were able to secure the dosages from the state Department of Health – opened up an express lane for them to get in.

All patients scheduled for Saturday were getting their first shots, and left with date-certain appointments for their second.

They also left with a spring in their steps.

For Ecuadoran immigrants Luz Urgiles, 72, and Jaime Orellana, 75, the vaccines are going to change everything, said their translator and driver, Manuel Orellana.

“They were scared all the time, because of their age,” Manuel Orellana, no relation to Jaime, said. “They stayed at home all the time. She don’t want to go out and be taken anywhere because” of the risk of infection. That included foregoing their jobs through a local temporary agency.

And with severe language barriers and no computer access, they didn’t really have any clear expectation when that was going to change.

With shots in their arms, the couple said, they look forward to resuming their jobs and getting back into the larger community.

Jesus helped him get this far, Jaime Orellana said in Spanish as he left the clinic Saturday, referring to his making it through the last year. The vaccine can take it from here.

Not a moment too soon, either. The clinic occurred as the Department of Health reported 7,132 new coronavirus cases – the highest daily number since mid-January – and 33 more death, emphasizing the race against the clock that the vaccine roll-out still represents.

The vaccines approved for emergency use in the United States have all been judged as very effective in preventing infection, and then for those who might still get sick, dramatically reducing the risk of complications that might require hospitalization or cause death.

Harrisburg resident Edith Bradshaw, 60, said she, too, is looking forward to that lower-anxiety future.

“I missed just communicating and socializing with family and friends, stuff like that,” said Bradshaw, who saw things further complicated last year when she suffered a stroke and had to leave her two jobs as a security officer and home health care aide.

“We actually had service last Sunday back in-house,” at her New Life Christian Church in the city. “This way, if I go back I don’t have to worry too much.”

Dr. Henderson, who is Black, said he sees the digital divide as one of the biggest barriers to equal distribution of the vaccines. That’s because, Henderson said, “practically, the only way that you can sign up for these sites is if you have computer access.”

Penn State removed that barrier for Saturday’s clinic, Gibbs said, by using its community partners to make direct connections to potential recipients, who then received a phone from Penn State Health to finalize the date, time and place for the shot. All the patients had to do was get there, and that they did by car, bus, taxi or foot.

All of those who received shots Saturday were doing so in line with the state’s protocols, meaning that they all were over 65, facing high risks for severe complications from COVID-19, or a caregiver in one of those categories. President Joe Biden has said he wants all Americans to at least be eligible to register for a vaccine by May 1.

Steelton residents Jorge and Betty Frometa, and their special needs daughter Rachel, were steered to the clinic from their St. Francis of Assisi Church in Harrisburg. All had wide smiles as they waited out the 15 minute, post-shot observation period that staffers used to make sure vaccine recipients weren’t experiencing any severe reactions.

“It feels liberating, in a way… like a great load has been lifted off my shoulder,” said Jorge, a 68-year-old retired electrician for the state. His wife works with people with disabilities through the Pennsylvania Family Network. “I mean, we’re all at risk of exposure. We can try to protect ourselves, but we can’t see the virus.”

And now? “I want to celebrate the 4th of July like President Biden said,” Frometa said.

Gibbs said Penn State Health to do more of the pop-up clinics throughout its service area as more doses of the vaccine become available.


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