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Lightfoot, Preckwinkle say not ‘enough doses’ to expand vaccine pool — but Pritzker argues it’s unfair to deny ‘medically vulnerable’

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle rejected Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s plan to expand the vaccine pool, arguing it would add over a million people to the free-for-all for the scarce doses. But a Pritzker spokeswoman said the governor “strongly believes the most medically vulnerable in our state should qualify for vaccination as soon as possible.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, left, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, center, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, right, in March.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, left, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, center, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, right, give their daily coronavirus update in March.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

While Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he remains optimistic about the state’s COVID-19 vaccine supply growing in the weeks ahead, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Thursday rejected his plan to expand the pool of eligible shot recipients later this month.

Doing so would add over a million people to the free-for-all playing out across the city and suburbs for the coveted and incredibly scarce doses, creating “an even harder time” for those still waiting at the head of the line, according to Lightfoot and Preckwinkle.

“While we are making progress every day with vaccinating people in [distribution phases] 1A and 1B, at this time we are not being supplied with enough doses that would allow us to expand eligibility in these phases,” the former political rivals said in a rare joint statement.

“We recognize the Governor must make tough choices and consider needs across this diverse state, but given the limited supply of vaccine, we must also make the tough choices as the leaders of the most populous city and county in the state,” the mayor and county board president said. “We look forward to expanding eligibility as vaccine supply improves.”

And the supply is doing just that, Pritzker said at an Elgin vaccination site, a day after his office announced all Illinois residents as young as 16 with disabilities or chronic conditions including heart disease and diabetes will be able to sign up for shots beginning Feb. 25.

They’ll join the roughly 4 million health care workers, nursing home residents, people 65 or older and select essential workers who are currently cleared to register for a vaccine appointment. At best, about 10% of those eligible in Chicago have been covered, according to city Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

Cook County residents in that expanded pool will have to look for appointments at sites outside the Chicago area.

“We think it’s more like late March before we’d be at a point where realistically we could start thinking about opening that up further,” Arwady told a state Senate committee on the vaccine rollout.

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, administers the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Mayor Lori Lightfoot last month at St. Bernard Hospital.
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, administers the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Mayor Lori Lightfoot last month at St. Bernard Hospital.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

But Pritzker reiterated his “optimism” that with a third vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson nearing FDA approval, and with weekly shipments from the federal government up about 28% in the last month, “it’s just a tremendously better situation” for Illinois.

“Still a massive shortage, there’s no doubt, but they’re working very hard,” the Democratic governor said of the federal government. “They are increasing the supply to states as fast as they can.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at an Elgin vaccination site Thursday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at an Elgin vaccination site Thursday.
State of Illinois livestream

As for Chicago and Cook County diverging from the state’s Phase 1B expansion, Pritzker spokeswoman Emily Bittner said the governor “strongly believes the most medically vulnerable in our state should qualify for vaccination as soon as possible, and that it would be unfair for the medically vulnerable like cancer patients to be denied vaccine in Illinois.

“Even though vaccine supply remains limited throughout the nation, the pipeline has started to increase and nearly 100 million more doses are on the horizon,” Bittner said in a statement. “Federal guidance already includes this vulnerable group, and the Governor is particularly invested in expanding access because this group includes a disproportionately large share of vulnerable people of color.”

And some local health departments have already said they’re ready to move on to the next priority groups “in the coming weeks,” according to Pritzker’s office.

Illinois’ supply stood at almost 2.4 million doses as the state reported the second-highest number of vaccinations in a single day, with 69,029 shots that went into arms Wednesday.

About 1.5 million doses have been administered overall, but only 346,773 people, or about 2.7% of the population, have received both required doses. The state’s rolling average of shots administered per day is up to 56,094.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle receives a COVID-19 vaccine last month at the Tinley Park Convention Center. 
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle receives a COVID-19 vaccine last month at the Tinley Park Convention Center.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

While Lightfoot and Preckwinkle say it’s too early to expand the pool, other groups are incensed they’re not already in it.

First responders, grocery store workers, manufacturing employees and other frontline categories are included in Phase 1B, but construction workers who have been labeled essential throughout the pandemic are slated for Phase 1C, which is not yet scheduled.

“We have been 100% all in, answering the call to serve day in and day out, while we put our own health on the line,” said Don Finn, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 134. “We have watched while members of Local 134 contracted COVID-19, brought it home to their families and even lost their life over it. And now the Governor says we don’t deserve access to the vaccine even in wave 2? It’s outrageous, unsafe, dangerous and disrespectful.”

A spokeswoman said Pritzker “understands the frustration of those who are eager to get vaccinated” and remains “eager to expand the pool of people who qualify for vaccination as soon as possible.”

Contributing: Andrew Sullender