Pritzker rips slow vaccine rollout at nursing homes — but pharmacies say he set the schedule

As of Wednesday, just 22% of the more than 537,000 shots allocated for long-term care centers were actually administered.

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A CVS pharmacist administers the COVID-19 vaccine to a nursing home resident in New York, as part of a federal program. Advocates have criticized the slow pace of the program around the country, including in Illinois.


COVID-19 vaccinations at Illinois’ nursing homes have been rolling out slowly — prompting a rebuke from Gov. J.B. Pritzker aimed at the two pharmacy chains responsible for giving the shots. 

But advocates for the elderly aren’t letting him off the hook — and the pharmacies say his administration is responsible in part for the delay.

As of Wednesday, just 22% of the more than 537,000 shots allocated for long-term care centers were actually administered. It’s not clear how many of those doses have been distributed to Walgreens and CVS, but the companies say they are working on a timetable set by the state.

Bristling at criticism that the state is not quickly getting vaccines out to its residents, Pritzker repeated at a news conference Wednesday that a federal program for long-term care that relies on the two giant pharmacy chains to administer the shots is to blame. The low number of vaccines given at the homes skews the overall state numbers, which show just over 40% of doses allocated to Illinois have been used, the governor said. 

However, Pritzker’s own plan for the vaccinations at homes outside of Chicago adheres to a timetable his administration submitted to the federal government. In fact, the schedule for shots at assisted-care facilities — accounting for the largest number of long-term facilities in Illinois — just began on Monday.

Data provided by the two pharmacy chains show that the state activated a program for around 570 skilled nursing homes on Dec. 28 but didn’t formally start the vaccination program at almost 1,000 assisted living and other long-term care facilities until earlier this week.

The federal government’s plan, announced by the Trump Administration in October, dictated that CVS and Walgreens would take charge of vaccinating residents and staff at nursing homes across the country. Governors in other states have also complained about the speed of the program. Expectations for delivery set by the Trump Administration fuels some of the criticism. 

Why wait for CVS, Walgreens?

But for advocates of the elderly in Illinois, the buck stops with Pritzker.

“It’s hard to tell what’s driving the decisions. Is it politics or is it public health?” asked Bob Gallo, Illinois state director of AARP. “I don’t care who sticks a needle in my arm.”

Gallo noted that West Virginia worked with independent pharmacies and also relied on the National Guard to lead the vaccination campaign in that state, a model that Pritzker can follow if he’s dissatisfied with the current model.

“Why are we waiting for CVS and Walgreens to be the only ones to do this?”

For their part, the pharmacy chains say they are making progress according to the state’s timetable.

Both companies plan two visits to each nursing home for the pair of vaccine doses required of each patient and will return for additional visits to give residents and staff opportunities to get vaccinated. 

1st dose by mid-February

A Walgreens spokesman said the company is on track to make the first visit to all of Illinois’ assisted-care centers by the middle of February. 

CVS said the federal government determines weekly vaccine allotments. 

“CVS Pharmacy’s vaccine allocations are based on an estimate held in queue, not the actual amount of vaccine ordered,” the company said in a statement.

All skilled nursing facilities, where 90% of long-term care facilities deaths have taken place during the pandemic, have been visited at least once, Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said in an emailed statement. 

She said the state will work with the two pharmacy chains “to ensure they have the resources needed to schedule and administer vaccinations at the rest of the long-term care facilities.” 

Long-term care facilities in Chicago, however, are on a different timetable. The city has its own schedule and, in fact, set a Dec. 28 start for vaccinations at all centers — both skilled nursing and assisted living. That appears to have allowed the city to get a jump on shots given to senior care homes as compared with the rest of the state.

Contributing: Mitchell Armentrout

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

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