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The State of COVID-19 and Vaccinations in Philadelphia Roundtable discussion took place on July 8, 2021. Graphic: AL DÍA News
The State of COVID-19 and Vaccinations in Philadelphia Roundtable discussion took place on July 8, 2021. Graphic: AL DÍA News

The Delta variant and more, what is the state of COVID-19 in Philly and beyond?

AL DÍA’s first in-person roundtable discussion in more than two years looked at what the last six months of 2021 could look like through a COVID lens.

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Make no mistake, COVID-19 is here to stay whether people like it or not. 

Despite vaccines being more accessible than at any point in the first six months of 2021, there is still a battle to educate people about their effectiveness and safety.

How to do so was a major part of a recent roundtable discussion held at AL DÍA, sponsored by the Philadelphia Department of Health, on Thursday, July 8. “The State of COVID-19 and Vaccinations in Philadelphia” was AL DÍA’s first in-person roundtable in more than two years, and touched on everything pressing around COVID-19, from the new Delta variant sweeping the U.S. to vaccinating children, and what the message needs to be surrounding the ongoing fight with the virus as the year enters its second half.

The six featured speakers represented leaders at almost every level of the fight, including representatives from Philadelphia government, those leading community organization efforts, and those on the ground working directly with individual community members.

They were as follows: Joanna Otero-Cruz, managing director of community services at the Managing Director’s Office of Philadelphia, Vanessa Caracoza, director of Philly Counts, Manuel Delgado, chief operating officer at Asociación de Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM), Jorian Rivera-Ventidos, prevention manager at GALAEI, Dr. Maryann Salib of Esperanza, and Alexandra Thomas, a registered nurse at Congreso Health Center.

The Delta Variant

The talk began by diving into the COVID-19’s relatively new Delta variant, which is rapidly becoming the most prevalent strain of the novel coronavirus not only across the U.S., but also the world.

“This is not uncommon to viruses. This is what viruses do, they mutate,” said Dr. Salib.

For COVID-19 in particular, there are a number of variants that have made rounds around the U.S. and the world. Named for letters in the Greek alphabet, the first mutation was known as the Alpha variant, and started in England.

Salib said the main concern with the newer Delta variant is its transmissibility. While the Alpha variant is 50% more transmissible than the original COVID-19 strain, the Delta variant is 50% more transmissible than the Alpha variant.

Fortunately, she said, the vaccines available are effective at keeping people out of the hospital, but there is major concern for those still not completely vaccinated.

“One dose is not sufficient, and so it is very, very, very important that everyone who has received their first dose, gets their second dose, and that, if they haven’t been vaccinated, to be vaccinated,” said Salib.

Philadelphia has one of the highest rates of vaccination of major cities in the country, with more than 70% of the adult population having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Still, it has work to do to get those residents fully vaccinated, with the latest city data showing just over 800,000 as having received both shots of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or just one of a Johnson & Johnson jab.

Diving deeper into the city’s data also reveals that many of the predominantly Latino zip codes in Philly remain with some of the lowest vaccination rates.

It’s where boots on the ground approaches have the greatest effect.

Philly Counts’ Vaccine Champions and more

From the city’s perspective, the efforts of the Philly Counts office play the biggest role in connecting directly with communities and other community partners. It’s main goal is what’s known as community immunity, or 70% of the whole city population completely vaccinated, as cited by a number of medical experts.

For Caracoza, the grassroots effort towards community immunity involves constant conversation and interaction with community members and partners, especially in areas pinpointed as having lower vaccination rates.

“It’s likely not to take, you know, one conversation to help a person reach an informed decision. It’s going to take multiple conversations and it does have to come from different people,” she said.

The Philly Counts office adds a voice to that conversation in the form of the many vaccine champions it’s trained to spread the facts about COVID-19’s three vaccines and the virus itself.

Officially called the COVID-19 Vaccine Champion training program, designed using the same model of the Philly Counts office’s previous Census Champion training program, the effort trains and empowers any willing Philadelphia resident to be the authorities on COVID-19 vaccines in their communities.

“It’s your neighbor who’s being trained to kind of be that champion and that cheerleader for the vaccines and can really accompany people throughout the way,” said Otero-Cruz.

Once through the training, champions can answer questions ranging from the history of coronaviruses, COVID-19, the speedy development of the vaccine, who should get it (everyone), and how immigration status factors into getting one (it doesn’t).

Community vaccine efforts and support

Beyond the city’s efforts and often in partnership with them, are community organizations like GALAEI, APM, Esperanza and Congreso that are the first line of contact for residents.

Rivera-Veintidos detailed GALAEI’s first COVID vaccination clinic on June 5, where those helping with outreach walked in the heat from Girard station on the Market-Frankford Line to Huntingdon going door-to-door to let the community know.

They went on to say that the approach needs to be the one adopted by all going forward if the city is to reach its community immunity goal.

“We have to be intentional to move forward, but we also have to do the frontline work that comes with it,” said Rivera-Veintidos. “That’s meeting where they’re at, at their homes. If we have to sit in their homes and do it while they’re there because that’s what makes them more comfortable, then we will do that.”

GALAEI’s first vaccination clinic was also in partnership with Prevention Point, which hosts its own walk-up vaccination clinics every Tuesday and Thursday from noon to 3:30 p.m.

At APM, Delgado spoke about a partnership with Temple University that created a vaccination clinic that runs every Wednesday at the organization’s branch on Rising Sun Avenue. 

But beyond the medical support, Delgado also touched upon the organization’s efforts to aid all the other facets of society that took hits during COVID-19, whether it be small businesses, homeowners, or families needing to go virtual so children could keep up with school.

“We’ve taken a whole community approach because this has impacted people in so many different ways,” said Delgado.

Esperanza continues to provide COVID-19 vaccines at its Hunting Park and Kensington locations Monday through Friday and Congreso is doing the same at its own location.

Big and small efforts together

Thomas also touched upon the importance of doing little things to connect the community, such as wearing pins identifying oneself as vaccinated or in support of getting one.

“I am vaccinated. I am you. I am Latina. I am part of the community,” she said.

In the fight against COVID-19, whether it’s an individual, community organization or the City of Philadelphia, the combination of big and small efforts collaboratively hold the key to eventually seeing the way out of COVID-19.

The road is still long, but together it gets shorter by the day, week and month.

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