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West Side leaders throw support behind Loretto Hospital amid vaccine scandal

“We want to undergird this institution with confidence,” U.S. Rep. Danny Davis said, a day after the latest chapter emerged in the Loretto vaccine fiasco.

Loretto Hospital, 645 S. Central Ave. in the Austin neighborhood.
Loretto Hospital, 645 S. Central Ave. in the Austin neighborhood.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

A group of top West Side leaders on Saturday urged city officials to wrap up their investigation into the Loretto Hospital vaccine scandal and start sending doses to the Austin neighborhood safety net again as soon as possible.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot cut off Loretto’s vaccine supply pending a full probe of its misallocation of hundreds of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to ineligible people outside the hospital’s low-income Black community.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford resigned from the hospital board last week because he disagreed with how executives were reprimanded, but he called on the mayor to consider the “vital institution” as a whole, and not just the actions of its leaders.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, speaks during a virtual news conference Saturday.
State Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, speaks during a virtual news conference Saturday.
Provided

“People believe in The Loretto Hospital,” Ford said during a virtual news conference with other members of the West Side Black Elected Officials group. “They still want to be vaccinated by The Loretto Hospital… We cannot afford to take a step back and confuse people about where they can go get the vaccine.”

U.S. Rep Danny Davis said “we know that there have been problems. We don’t deny that at all, but I do know that there are efforts underway to correct whatever those problems might have been… We want to undergird this institution with confidence.”

The latest alleged chapter in the scandal emerged Friday night when Crain’s Chicago Business reported West Side state Rep. Camille Lilly — who serves as the hospital’s chief external affairs officer — gave Loretto staffers a list of people to vaccinate without requiring them to schedule appointments by phone or online like the rest of the public.

Loretto spokeswoman Becky Carroll flatly denied the report.

“This is a false narrative as no such list exists and Ms. Lilly is being attacked for doing her job, which is to engage community-based organizations to help recruit frontline workers and residents to get vaccinated at the hospital and protect Black and Brown communities from this deadly virus,” Carroll said in an email.

Hospital officials have acknowledged other missteps by top executives, though.

Loretto CEO George Miller and now-former chief operating officer Dr. Anosh Ahmed first came under fire earlier this month when a series of Block Club Chicago reports revealed the facility doled out doses to ineligible recipients with connections to the hospital honchos.

That included workers at Trump Tower where Ahmed owns a condominium, plus employees at his preferred Gold Coast luxury watch shop and a high-priced steakhouse. Miller also provided vaccine doses to more than 200 members of his southwest suburban church.

Ahmed resigned last week, saying he’d become a “distraction” while standing by “the good work the hospital is doing to fight COVID-19.” He claimed “only 200” ineligible people received shots under his watch, among more than 16,000 Loretto recipients.

A source previously told the Sun-Times that Miller was slapped with a two-week suspension. He apologized in a Facebook post last week, saying he’d “been misguided by my own self-serving purposes.”

State Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, a hospital board member, has thrown her support behind Miller, calling him “one of our best presidents that we’ve had.”

On Saturday, Lightford said the board is “giving the hospital the time to audit thoroughly,” and in the meantime, “we’re going to keep pushing. We will continue to be a viable institution in the Austin community for health care and for employment moving forward.“

Sharon Grant, a director of the Loretto Hospital Foundation, said the facility is already feeling the effects of the fiasco on its finances.

“I have funders that are beginning to hold up funds because they want to see the outcome of this,” she said.

After Lightfoot cut off Loretto — which she chose as the site of the city’s first-ever COVID-19 vaccinations last December to emphasize her commitment to equitable distribution in communities of color — the city tapped Rush University Medical Center to help fill the vaccine gap in Austin.

An internal investigation is expected to wrap up next week.