Pritzker OKs local officials to vaccinate anyone 16 and up — ahead of deadline Chicago already won’t meet

The governor is allowing local health departments to start giving out doses to any resident 16 or older “at their immediate discretion” in an effort to vaccinate as many people as possible amid an uptick in cases.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens at a COVID-19 news conference in March.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens at a March 18 COVID-19 news conference. His health team has given local health department more leeway to expand vaccine eligibility as cases rise across the state.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Citing a “concerning possible trend” in rising COVID-19 infection rates statewide, Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday deployed vaccination teams to five hard-hit counties in northwestern Illinois and authorized other local health departments to expand eligibility to get more shots into arms as quickly as possible. 

Public health officials say they’ve seen demand slow down in a number of counties, leaving appointments unfilled while the average statewide coronavirus testing positivity rate has increased by 38% in less than two weeks. 

That’s why the governor’s health team is allowing local health officials to start giving out doses to any resident 16 or older “at their immediate discretion,” according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. 

“We want to avoid a surge, and so we’ve tried to jump on top of this as fast as possible, making sure we’re not only vaccinating more people, but that we’ve got teams that are going to the regions of the state where this is happening, and… effectuating change so that we can bring down the numbers,” Pritzker said during an unrelated South Side news conference. 

The troubling uptick also threatens to derail Pritzker’s “bridge phase” plan that had been poised to loosen more business restrictions within weeks. 

“We cannot move forward if our metrics are going backward,” Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a statement. 

Pritzker’s latest inoculation edict applies mostly to downstate areas where demand “appears to have waned,” according to the governor’s office. Vaccine demand is still far outpacing supply in Chicago and its collar counties. 

Residents should contact their local health departments directly to see if they’ve expanded eligibility.

“Each county is different and local health departments know better how to vaccinate people in their communities as soon as and as equitably as possible,” Ezike said. 

Pritzker previously announced plans to open appointments to all residents 16 and up starting April 12, though officials in Chicago and suburban Cook County have said that’ll likely happen closer to May 1 for city-area providers. 

For now, Pritzker is also sending “rapid response” vaccination teams to five counties in the northwest portion of the state where experts say they need “to administer doses quickly to blunt increasing trends.”

The state is scheduled to receive an all-time high of nearly 1 million vaccine doses from the federal government next week. With the latest 126,710 shots administered statewide on Thursday, nearly 2 million residents have now been fully immunized, but that’s only 15.4% of the population. 

COVID-19 vaccine doses administered by day

Graphic by Jesse Howe and Caroline Hurley | Sun-Times

Source: Illinois Department of Public Health

Graph not displaying properly? Click here.

Illinois has averaged 99,449 shots administered per day over the past week, while COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates — which were near record lows earlier this month — have inched upward just as they did last October before a devastating fall resurgence. 

For the first time since Feb. 6, the public health department reported more than 3,000 new cases of the disease in a single day, with 3,002 infections diagnosed among 76,774 tests. That raised the state’s rolling average positivity rate to 2.9%, which had been at 2.1% on March 13. 

Hospitals were treating 1,302 COVID-19 patients Thursday night, the most they’ve seen since the end of February — and a 15% increase compared to two weeks ago. 

New COVID-19 cases by day

Graphic by Jesse Howe and Caroline Hurley | Sun-Times

Source: Illinois Department of Public Health

Graph not displaying properly? Click here.

“While these rates are certainly significantly lower than the peak, they represent a potential early warning sign about a possible resurgence,” the state health department said in a statement. 

The state also reported 33 more deaths, including that of a Cook County teenager. 

Overall, Illinois’ death rate has been falling since late December, but experts agree a rise in cases is typically followed weeks later by rises in hospitalizations and deaths. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady sounded the alarm earlier this week on rising transmission among young people in the 18-39 age range. The governor’s health team noted the city has seen its daily case rate jump by 50% in the last week. Cases are up about 40% in suburban Cook County, where officials still followed the city in easing outdoor dining restrictions Friday in their “cautious approach to reopening.”

Pritzker touted his “aggressive action” against the potential spike about a week after outlining the “bridge phase” plan ahead of a potential full reopening as early as May. 

To get to the bridge phase, 70% of residents 65 or older have to receive at least a first dose of vaccine — a benchmark the state will hit “in the coming days,” officials said. 

The other requirements are keeping 20% or more of intensive care unit beds open across the state, and keeping hospitalization and death rates flat or declining over a 28-day period. Both those metrics are heading the wrong direction.

“This is very concerning to us and it makes us take a pause here to evaluate these numbers,” Pritzker said. “What we want to do most of all is make sure: is this a blip in the numbers?... Or is this something that could have some sustaining features to it, in which case, obviously we want to be extra careful.”

Over the past year, more than 1.2 million residents have tested positive for the disease, and 21,203 have died. 

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