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City moves to next phase of COVID-19 vaccinations but supply falls far short of need

On Monday, hundreds of thousands of older Chicagoans and essential workers will be eligible to receive shots. 

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, receives her second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in January.
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, receives her second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine Thursday at Harry S Truman College on the North Side.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans will become eligible for the next round of COVID-19 vaccinations Monday but there is still only enough vaccine supply to give shots to a small number, the city’s top health official said.

“We do not have anywhere near enough vaccine to vaccinate anywhere near the number of people who are going to want to get vaccinated beginning on Monday,” Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said at a news conference Thursday where she also got her second shot of vaccine.

Beginning next week, Chicagoans age 65 and older and a wide range of essential workers will be eligible for the next phase of shots, which they will receive through health care providers, pharmacies or employers. That group is so large — more than 360,000 older residents and more than 300,000 essential workers including police and firefighters, teachers, grocery store workers and factory workers — that the city will not come close to being able to meet demand until the U.S. government increases supplies. The city has been receiving about 34,000 vaccine doses a week from the federal government, Arwady said.

“The amount of vaccine that we are getting each week, right now, will allow us to vaccinate 5%, one in 20, of the people who are eligible,” Arwady said, acknowledging that many people are going to be frustrated.

So far, the city has vaccinated more than 100,000 people, mostly health care workers. The city has also been vaccinating residents and employees of congregate settings, such as nursing homes. Those vaccinations will continue.

Arwady said it will likely be at least mid-February before seniors begin getting vaccinated. They can make appointments with their doctors, pharmacies or dedicated vaccination sites set up by the city, including city college locations. More details on signing up for vaccines will be available Monday, Arwady said.

Doctors, hospitals and health centers will be reaching out to those eligible for vaccination, Arwady said, emphasizing that no one should show up at a community center or health care site without an appointment.

“You cannot show up at a pharmacy, at a point of dispensing, at a doctor’s office and think there is going to be a line,” Arwady said.

The city also is working with employers to set up workplace vaccinations, though Arwady said she expects most people are going to be vaccinated through their health care provider, including community health clinics.

The city continues to see low vaccination rates in the communities of color on the West and South sides, areas hardest hit by the virus, a trend that the city will work to fix, Arwady said. She promised more details Monday.

“We have very specific plans around really making sure that we are doing everything we can to lower any barriers to vaccine,” Arwady said, “and to make sure all of Chicago is getting access to this vaccine.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday in an interview with Politico’s Shia Kapos that the city is canvassing communities to convince Black and Brown Chicagoans who have borne the brunt of the virus to overcome their distrust of the federal government and to get vaccinated.

The “Protect Chicago” program was launched in November, before Chicago received its first dose of vaccine, to overcome resistance caused by the documented history of Blacks in government-sanctioned, unethical medical studies such as the Tuskegee syphilis research.

“We’re literally going door to door in the same neighborhoods, same census tracts that have had the toughest time with COVID,” Lightfoot said.

“We’re also trying to lead by example. We are really pushing to get health care workers … and other notable, trusted, diverse voices to get the vaccine and really kind of preach the gospel of why this is so important and such a life-saver,” Lightfoot said. “I’m looking forward to getting the vaccine myself and will continue to emphasize why this is necessary for us to be able to heal and move forward out of this dark time of this pandemic.”

To receive city updates on vaccinations, testing and other coronavirus-related information, sign up at covidcoach.chicago.gov.

Contributing: Fran Spielman

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, shows off her “I got my COVID-19 vaccine” sticker in January.
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, shows off her “I got my COVID-19 vaccine” sticker after receiving her second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine Thursday at Harry S. Truman College on the North Side.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file