Ala Stanford held Iveanna Aguilar, 5, in her arms as the child waited to get her COVID-19 vaccine at the María de los Santos Health Center in Fairhill on Thursday afternoon.
Stanford, the founder of Philadelphia’s Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium — who was appointed by President Joe Biden to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Region 3 office in April — was at the North Philly health center to check in with the leadership team and medical staff about the two-week-old nationwide effort to get children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years vaccinated.
During the tour, Stanford met Iveanna and her sister Isabella, 8, who visited the health center to receive their first vaccine doses. Stanford said community health centers like María de los Santos are key entities in the current vaccination efforts due to the trust and relationship they have established with patients throughout the years, especially during the pandemic.
“The people who visit know who’s taking care of them, and trust them,” Stanford said. “So, as trusted messengers in this community, they will be able to call parents and grandparents to let them know that the babies can get vaccinated now.”
Stanford said the main purpose of her visit was to make sure that community health centers have the support and resources available and needed to vaccinate children under age 5. She said she wants to guarantee that the federally funded health centers, like María de los Santos, have support for claims reimbursement, grant funding, telehealth initiatives, and jurisdiction over the communication efforts needed to address specific communities.
Even though she didn’t mention what current efforts are in place for the region, Stanford said the Biden administration is prioritizing health equity initiatives like transportation vouchers and paid time off for parents to take their children to medical appointments, and seeking ways to support the health centers.
“The federal government plays a part, but it’s really a multidisciplinary response to problems that are so complex. So, the emphasis is now on the communities getting the support that they need,” she said.
According to an in-depth analysis published by Kaiser Health News, policymakers, health practitioners, parents, and caregivers may be presented with additional barriers to vaccinate this population group, due to a unique set of issues to consider for younger children. The two newly authorized vaccines require different shipping and administration logistics: The one produced by Moderna is administered in two doses with a 28-day interval; the one produced by Pfizer is administered in three doses over a nearly three-month period.
There is the possibility of new challenges with communication and outreach plans, the number and location of pediatric vaccinators and sites, and the prioritization of equity in the vaccination efforts for this group, the Kaiser analysis continues, noting that some of these hurdles were experienced in the vaccination rollout for children 5 to 11 years of age.
María de los Santos Health Center is one of the city sites where COVID-19 vaccination services are available for children between 6 months and 5 years old, the youngest population group and last major phase in the COVID-19 vaccination rollout. According to the federal uniform data system, the center served 19,000 patients in 2021, 35% of them children ages 17 and under. Of those it serves, 89% identified as Hispanic or Latinos, followed by 5% who identified as Black. The center is part of Delaware Valley Community Health Inc., which notes on its website that many of the patients it serves are uninsured or underinsured.
According to the CDC, Philadelphia is at a low COVID-19 level. The new case rate has fallen 22% in the last two weeks. In the same time frame, the new case rate for COVID-19 has fallen by 18% in Pennsylvania, where 69.5% have been fully vaccinated; about 80% have been fully vaccinated in Philadelphia.