Philly’s health department admits the city is much less vaccinated against COVID-19 than it says

Philadelphia’s vaccination rates are significantly lower than the Department of Public Health said, officials acknowledged Wednesday, blaming data errors for the inflated numbers.

More importantly, only a third of children in Philadelphia between the ages of 5 and 11 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, far less than the 53.6% officials announced for weeks.

About 26% of those children are fully immunized, the health department said in a news release Wednesday, the first day children could attend public schools in the city without masks.

Adult vaccination rates have also been inflated: About three-quarters of Philadelphians 18 and older are fully vaccinated, down from the 82% that had been reported.

“No one is more disappointed with this error than we are, but we have corrected it and instituted new measures to ensure that any future issues are detected before they are triggered,” said Cheryl Bettigole, commissioner at the health of the city.

Bettigole and his top aides knew publicly available vaccination rates were incorrect on Feb. 16, spokesman James Garrow said. Yet they dropped the city’s indoor mask requirement last week before rates were fixed. Vaccination rates, however, did not play a role in changing the rules, Garrow said.

“The reason we didn’t think about it was, as we’ve said throughout the pandemic, the vaccination rate, we don’t have a target percentage to hit,” he said. he declares. “From our perspective, vaccination rates have nothing to do with our mandates because … we want the mandates to be based on what actually happens to the virus on the ground.”

The number of cases, positivity rates, hospitalizations and case increases, based on the referral system recently released by the health department, are the determining factors, he said.

READ MORE: Far fewer Philadelphia children could be vaccinated against COVID-19 than the city has said

Garrow acknowledged that data errors won’t help build credibility among city residents who are already skeptical of vaccination.

“Trust is paramount in this industry and it is unfortunate that this has happened,” he said.

The city added a second epidemiology team to review the data and instituted a monthly snapshot of immunization data to accompany the weekly data checks that were routine. It also changed the way vaccination rates are presented on the public dashboard to ensure the error doesn’t happen again, Garrow said. The raw vaccination numbers on the city’s dashboard are correct, Garrow said. Only the vaccination rates were wrong.

Ala Stanford, a pediatric surgeon and founder of the Black Doctors’ COVID-19 Consortium, said she’s not surprised the city’s pediatric vaccination rates are incorrect.

“I’ve been in elementary and high school since January 18,” she said. “I see the questions being asked. I see the holes in education. And I still see parents who have not endorsed and embraced the idea of ​​vaccination with their children.

COVID case rates are so low right now that she didn’t believe the risk of school exposure was significant. But low vaccination rates among children will be concerning if another COVID surge occurs.

The news comes as children attended city schools unmasked for the first time in nearly two years. Making masks optional has had mixed results. At a district high school, a teacher said most of her students still wore masks; only about 30% chose to remove them. At Beeber’s Science Leadership Academy, a 7- to 12-year-old school in West Philadelphia, virtually everyone kept their masks on. Sanai Browning, a senior, said she saw maybe 10 students who weren’t wearing masks.

“I kept mine,” Browning, 18, said. “I always like to keep it. I just like to keep everyone around me safe.

Elkin Elementary in Kensington asked for parental permission before allowing children to unmask. Few families wanted their children’s masks removed, a teacher said.

Bettigole reiterated that unmasking is safe.

“The number of people testing positive for COVID in Philadelphia is rapidly approaching the lowest we’ve ever seen,” Bettigole said. “Because our number of cases is so low and falling, we feel it is safe enough for people to unmask indoors, including in schools.”

The city did not explain why the adult vaccination rate was incorrect, but said the pediatric vaccination rate was skewed in the process of integrating data on Philadelphians vaccinated in other Pennsylvania counties earlier this year, Garrow said.

In December, the state shared its records with Philadelphia, leaving the city with hundreds of thousands of duplicate vaccine records. These were supposed to be taken into account when the data was entered into the city’s dashboard on January 26, but for children aged 5 to 11, this was not the case. Garrow said he didn’t know why this age group alone included duplicate records.

“They just missed it,” he said. “It was a mistake.”

Garrow said he didn’t know when the problem was first identified, but said someone noticed the errors during a routine checkup and it was brought to Bettigole’s attention. February 16. The delay in updating public data was due to a revision effort. the data before correcting it.

At that time, Garrow said, the city stopped updating the vaccination rate as new vaccination records came in, but did not note the incorrect number while it conducted a review.

READ MORE: Fractured record keeping leaves Philadelphia hospitals unsure of vaccinated patients

The health department first acknowledged its review on Friday after an analysis by the Inquirer raised questions about the accuracy of the pediatric vaccination rate.

Coordinating immunization data has been a headache for public agencies from the start. State, federal and local record-keeping systems are not compatible, and in the absence of a national vaccine database, some data entry is done manually, Garrow said.

“There’s definitely an internal frustration here,” Garrow said.

Writer Kasturi Pananjary contributed to this story.

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