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Illinois Dems want more vaccine sites in suburbs, state if Chicago keeps first dibs on United Center shots

“It’s a desperate situation but I think time is going to solve this problem as we have more vaccines, more distribution centers,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

People line up outside the United Center COVID-19 vaccination site last month.
People line up earlier this week outside the COVID-19 vaccination site at the United Center.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Most of the Illinois Democrats in Congress on Friday stepped up pressure on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to add more vaccination sites in the suburbs and the rest of the state if most doses at the United Center super site continue to be reserved for Chicago residents.

The letter to FEMA, signed by 11 of Illinois’ 13 Democrats in the House of Representatives, comes as federal, state, county and local officials grapple with a variety of equity issues — race, income, physical condition, age and geography — and face some tough decisions as vaccines and distribution networks remain in short supply.

The United Center, on Chicago’s West Side, was one of the first federally sponsored sites opened by the Biden administration. The location was selected because of its proximity to underserved communities.

At first, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and FEMA officials said the United Center was intended for all eligible Illinois residents.

The door soon closed for people who did not live in Chicago or Cook County.

The central location and initial abundant supply of appointments made the United Center a magnet for anyone who could get there.

“It’s a desperate situation but I think time is going to solve this problem as we have more vaccines, more distribution centers,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters Friday.

Some lawmakers got calls from frustrated and angry constituents who had United Center appointments canceled when the eligibility rules suddenly changed.

The letter, organized by Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., said: “Many of our constituents who fall in the vulnerable category, but who don’t live in Chicago, felt frustrated with the recent determination to limit eligibility at the United Center Federal Mass Vaccination Center for Illinois residents outside of the city and county.”

It continued: “Their confusion was exacerbated with the abruptness of the announcement, and the consequent uncertainty surrounding their future access to a vaccination appointment.”

The Democrats asked FEMA to:

  • Given the focus on Chicago residents, share detailed plans and a timetable for more mass vaccination sites or mobile units.
  • Share how the locations of those federal sites are determined and consult more with local officials on placement of additional centers.
  • Inform them if the United Center will be used beyond the planned eight weeks.

President Joe Biden on Thursday announced expansions in vaccination sites — using more pharmacies and community health centers, plus federally run mobile units targeting underserved communities.

The switch to limit most of the shots to residents of Chicago and Cook County came Sunday, after it was revealed that fewer than 40% of people signing up for the initial vaccinations were Chicago residents.

That percentage “is at odds with the equity base and inclusion-driven reasons behind why the United Center was selected as a vaccine site in the first place,” Lightfoot said earlier this week.

The city is allotted 60% of the vaccinations at the United Center, with 30% reserved for Cook County; the state can designate who receives the remaining 10%.

For the city’s share, Chicago has decided it will, in the beginning, give priority to five ZIP codes: one on the West Side, four on the South Side.

Asked to comment on the letter Friday, the Chicago Department of Public Health issued a statement reiterating that its goal remains “to get vaccines to those who have suffered the greatest impact from the COVID-19 pandemic. ... Faced with a limited supply of vaccine, Chicago continues to make it a priority to vaccinate those who need it most.”

In a statement, FEMA’s Acting Regional Administrator Kevin Sligh said the decision to designate the United Center was based on metrics established through a “social vulnerability index” created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“FEMA is committed to the equitable distribution of vaccines. Using data from CDC’s social vulnerability index, the vaccination site was located in the City of Chicago and an additional allocation of vaccines was made to reach the most socially vulnerable communities. The decision to change course on registrations had to be made quickly because delaying the decision would only have ensured that the most socially vulnerable Illinoisans would be excluded from this particular effort.”

Others signing the House Democrats’ are: Bobby Rush, Robin Kelly, Marie Newman, Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia, Mike Quigley, Sean Casten, Danny Davis, Raja Krishnamoorthi, Jan Schakowsky and Bill Foster.

The two Democratic House members from Illinois who didn’t sign were Lauren Underwood and Cheri Bustos.