The marquee sign outside of the Theatre of the Living Arts in South Philadelphia reads: Penn Medicine COVID-19 VaccineHalf a Million Doses and Counting, Penn Medicine Reaches Out Across the Region to Extend COVID-19 Vaccine Access

“The music’s going every day, so patients are dancing in their chairs, and staff are dancing right along with them,” said Dan Wilson, vice president of Operations at Pennsylvania Hospital. At the hospital’s vaccine clinic held at the Theatre of the Living Arts (TLA) on South Street, he said, “it has a real party atmosphere and celebratory feel. People are finally getting their vaccines, beating COVID-19, and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Whether at a historic performance venue, in Black churches or neighborhood public schools, or in senior housing facilities, Penn Medicine staff helped bring COVID-19 vaccination to members of the communities most in need over the course of the first months of 2021. In late May, Penn Medicine surpassed 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered while continuing outreach to underserved and potentially hesitant populations.

Volunteers at a Penn Medicine/Delaware County vaccination event at Radnor High School pose for a group photo together with Flyers mascot Gritty.
Penn Medicine partnered with the Philadelphia Flyers’ “Take Your Shot” campaign. Mascot Gritty revved up the excitement at Radnor High School, where Penn Medicine Radnor volunteers provided vaccines to the community in Delaware County. Penn Medicine staff also offered single-shot vaccines to fans in attendance at a Flyers game in early May.
An older Black woman wearing glasses and a mask lifts the sleeve of her shirt to expose her upper arm as a home care provider injects COVID-19 vaccine.
More than 1,000 senior citizens living in public housing, as well as more than 600 homebound Penn Medicine patients, have received vaccines at home. The efforts are breaking down barriers — transportation, lack of internet access, and vaccine hesitancy — that may have prevented these Philadelphians from getting immunized. This outreach “takes a lot of time, but it’s a really important supplement to the high-volume strategies,” Nina O’Connor, MD, chief of Palliative Care and chief medical officer of Penn Medicine at Home, told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
A Penn Medicine staff volunteer with a ponytail, wearing a mask, leans down to speak with an older woman seated in a wheelchair who is holding a clipboard at a community vaccination event.
Through partnerships with local faith communities and secular community groups, Penn Medicine vaccinated more than 4,000 people in underserved neighborhoods of West and South Philadelphia by mid-April. A retrospective of the efforts on the first three such clinics, published April 7 in NEJM Catalyst, reported that 85 percent of the people vaccinated at these clinics were Black, helping to address the underrepresentation of Black Philadelphia residents in receiving the vaccine overall. A tailored combination of texting-based and phone-based signups helped break down technical barriers.
Yuhnis Syndor, a Black man carrying a clipboard, stands on the front porch of West Philadelphia resident Alvin Banks, a 57-year-old Black man holding his door open to have a conversation.
A Vaccine Street Team deployed professional door-to-door canvassing to help spread the word and address vaccine hesitancy and disparities in West Philadelphia in May. The effort, staffed by members of the community who were trained and paid, also helped to gain insight about reasons why some decline to be vaccinated. “Canvassing might be the next frontier for vaccine uptake,” said Heather Klusaritz, PhD, MSW, director of Community Health Services at Penn Medicine and director of Community Engagement for the Center for Public Health Initiatives. “We are really focused on making sure our neighbors get the information they need and that we can find them a vaccine through a clinic that is most convenient and comfortable to them — whether that’s a Penn Medicine community clinic, a hospital-based walk-up clinic, or at a local pharmacy.” (Photo by Caroline Gutman)

Navigating a Path Out of the Pandemic

It’s the variants vs. the vaccines: That alliterative phrase defined much of the pubic conversation about COVID-19 this spring and the U.S. saw a potential end to the pandemic in sight — while it raged on globally. As the public and health officials sought to navigate a time of uncertainty, Penn Medicine experts were seeking and sharing answers to key questions. This ongoing investigation of viral variants and immunity remains crucial to ensure that community vaccination initiatives reach their intended goals.

“The efforts to mobilize for COVID-19 vaccination across our community and to understand the impact of variants reflect every area of our mission at Penn Medicine,” said J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and dean of the Perelman School of Medicine. “From protecting the health of individuals, to exploring key intricacies of immunology, to engaging deeply with community partners for public health, our collaborative efforts to pave a path out of the pandemic reflect the best of what all of us aim to be.”

How immune are you if you’ve had COVID-19 already, and what are the implications for vaccination? People who have recovered from COVID-19 had a robust antibody and memory B cell response after the first mRNA vaccine dose, but little immune benefit after the second dose, according to research from the Perelman School of Medicine published in Science Immunology this spring. The study, led by E. John Wherry, PhD, chair of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics and director of the Institute for Immunology, provides more insight on the underlying immunobiology of mRNA vaccines. Wherry’s team is tracking not just the development of antibodies, but also other immune cell types, including T cells and B cells in a cohort of volunteer participants.

How long are the COVID-19 vaccines protective? The definitive answer to this question will require more time, but Wherry’s finding of strong immune responses in vaccinated individuals is encouraging. “This effort to examine memory B cells is important for understanding long-term protection and the ability to respond to variants,” he said. “We need to make sure people have the strongest memory B cell responses available. If circulating antibodies wane over time, our data suggests that durable memory B cells could provide a rapid source of protection against re-exposure to COVID-19, including variants.”

How will we know and respond if new or more dangerous SARS-CoV-2 variants have spread? A team led by Frederic Bushman, PhD, chair of Microbiology at the Perelman School of Medicine, has been working with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH) and numerous Penn researchers to sequence samples from COVID-19 patients in an effort to uncover SARS-CoV-2 variants in the community. The team began studying hospitalized patients at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania at the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 and have regularly been analyzing samples since then. In late March 2021, they reported that more than a third of recent COVID-19 cases in the Philadelphia region were caused by concerning variants of the virus that may be more transmissible. Public health officials urged continued vaccination to protect against further transmission of these variants.

What happens if new viral variants get around the protection of COVID-19 vaccines? So far, the vaccines are highly effective against known variants. If newer variants do emerge that are more infectious among vaccinated people, Bushman noted to WHYY news, there would simply be a need to take a booster shot or a seasonal vaccine like the flu shot. “It’s not the end of the world,” he said. “If we have to do that, it’s what we do.”

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