Lightfoot plans free vaccinations next year for all adults living, working in Chicago

Chicago’s Department of Public Health expects to get its first 23,000 doses later this month. First in line will be the city’s 34 hospitals, to vaccinate their highest-risk health workers.

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A nurse prepares a shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday in London, where the vaccine already has been approved for use. U.S. approval of the Pfizer vaccine s expected this week, and the city on Wednesday offered more details on its mass vaccination plans.

Associated Press

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday outlined plans to distribute free coronavirus vaccines next year to all adults who live and work in Chicago, beginning with front-line health care workers and employees of long-term care facilities, many of whom are minorities.

If Federal Drug Administration approval goes as planned — Pfizer’s vaccine Thursday, Moderna’s next week — the Chicago Department of Public Health expects to receive 23,000 doses later this month, with additional doses every week after that.

“We’re anticipating in the month of December somewhere in the 100,000-to-150,000 range. We’re ready for twice that. We’re ready for half that,” Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady told reporters.

During the first week, the vaccine will be distributed to Chicago’s 34 hospitals to begin vaccinating “highest-risk” health care workers. That includes those treating COVID patients or working in intensive care units.

During the second or third week, the city also anticipates rolling out vaccines to staff and residents at all 128 long-term care facilities in Chicago, including both skilled nursing and assisted care facilities.

In late December or early January, the city plans to open “mass vaccination sites,” by appointment only, for the remainder of the 400,000-strong universe of health care workers who are not based in hospitals.

After that, City Hall will begin the monumental task of vaccinating at least 70% of its general population, which is needed to achieve what’s known as “herd immunity.” The city’s goal is to get all adults vaccinated, free, next year.

For that, the city will follow yet-to-be established federal guidelines. The priority list is likely to include: first responders and other essential workers, many of whom are Black and Hispanic; people at high risk of contracting COVID-19 because they have underlying health conditions; and Chicagoans 65 and older.

Defining “essential worker” remains a “big question,” Arwady said.

According to City Hall, “several thousand” providers stand ready to administer the vaccine, including doctor’s offices, retail pharmacies, hospitals and federally qualified health centers. Large employers like grocery store chains could do the same.

Ultimately, the city also plans to open central vaccination sites, including gymnasiums at Chicago City Colleges, as well as mobile sites in the Black and Hispanic communities that have borne the brunt of the coronavirus.

Arwady, speaking to reporters on a conference call, acknowledged a “good uptake” of the vaccine depends on overcoming skepticism of the coronavirus vaccine, particularly in the African American community.

“Even though African American Chicagoans are more likely to be admitted to the hospital ICUs and die from flu, they are less likely to actually receive a flu vaccine. So we know that there needs to be some additional work. For very real legacy reasons, there isn’t trust there and a lot of need to answer questions,” Arwady said.

“I would be surprised if we did not see some lagging vaccine uptake in communities of color. That’s just unfortunately something to be expected.”

Even so, Arwady said vaccines will not be mandated, and she does not anticipate setting a “vaccination goal” to be met before reopening the Chicago economy.

But there will be “external pressure,” she said. Businesses and schools also may require vaccines “down the line,” she said.

Like the state, the Department of Public Health is “assembling its own scientific advisory committee of local experts” to review the FDA process and provide guidance throughout the vaccination process.

Arwady noted both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been “well tolerated” during clinical trials, with up to 10% of recipients suffering only occasional fatigue, muscle aches and high fevers.

The risk of side effects for a day or two after vaccination is far outweighed by the risk of severe illness and loss of life from COVID-19, she said.

Because she has no idea how many doses Chicago will receive each week, or how quickly, Arwady said the “situation is fluid,” requiring the city to be “nimble in how we respond.”

But she expressed “complete confidence” in the team she assembled and the extraordinary preparations the city has made for mass vaccinations.

That includes securing a “very unusual amount of cold storage capacity for a city” — at a warehouse in an undisclosed location with “a lot of layers of security” — to keep the Pfizer vaccine at minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit and the Moderna vaccine at minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Rubber flooring installed at those facilities means “if anybody accidentally drops the box, we won’t break those vials,” the commissioner said.

“The biggest logistics challenge of this, to be very honest, is the very short time frame — the Pfizer vaccine, in particular. Because this is ultra-cold, you only have five days to use it from when you defrost it. You can’t put it back in the ultra-cold,” Arwady said.

“So, we’ve gotten very specific with our hospitals, etc. ... There’s got to be very specific planning about exactly who are they planning to vaccinate. We will be providing vaccine at the amounts that we’re sure that they’re able to use it, and then, we will be supplementing frequently. That’s a lot more logistical work for us. But it means that we don’t have to worry about vaccine wasted.”

The federal government is providing the vaccine free, but so far, the city has been required to use the first round of federal stimulus funds to cover the cost of supplies, logistics and messaging.

That won’t cut it long-term, she said.

“This is not an inexpensive venture. ... We have a lot of interest in [receiving] additional federal dollars.”

Lightfoot said the city plans a “massive communications and messaging campaign” — with text messaging, apps and specialized computer software — to let people know “when they’re next up” to be vaccinated and remind them to get their second dose.

“It’s essential that we require the collection of demographic information on the people that are getting vaccinated so we understand how this is affecting people in different neighborhoods, different races and ethnicities. That is one of the key ways in which we are gonna be tracking equity in the distribution of this vaccine,” she said.

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