Pritzker lowers vaccine age requirement as deaths surpass 17,000
Gov. J.B. Pritzker lowered the age requirement for vaccination to 65 and older for the next phase of inoculations as the state surpassed 17,000 COVID-19 deaths Wednesday.
Federal guidelines recommend anyone 75 and older be given vaccination priority in the next phase, once health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities are vaccinated.
Citing lower average ages of deaths in minority communities, Pritzker said he "wanted to protect more of our seniors earlier."
"For the past 10 months we have seen a fundamental vulnerability to COVID-19 in seniors, not just 75 and older," he added.
Pritzker said it likely will be weeks before those eligible for the vaccine in the "Phase 1B" category will receive inoculations. He estimated 3.2 million Illinois residents fit in that category, which is now anyone unvaccinated who is 65 or older or an essential front-line worker, like police, firefighters, postal carriers, factory workers and grocery store employees.
To speed up vaccinations to the next eligible group, Pritzker said he will enlist the Illinois National Guard to "move these vaccines through the state at a faster pace."
The state's death toll from COVID-19 stands at 17,096 after the deaths of 139 more Illinois residents were reported Wednesday, and 7,569 new cases of the disease were also diagnosed, meaning 999,288 Illinoisans have been infected since the outbreak began last spring.
Health officials are also reporting the state's seven-day average case positivity rate of 8.4%, a decline for the second day in a row. The case positivity rate helps health officials track the level of viral spread within certain populations. The rate is determined by dividing the number of new cases by the number of test results over a week's span.
There were also 3,928 COVID-19 patients hospitalized statewide Tuesday, IDPH records show. Of those hospitalized, 812 were in intensive care.
As state officials gear up for the next phase of vaccinations, IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike also announced Wednesday that undocumented residents will be eligible for the vaccine and will not be turned away because of their immigration status. Leaders in some states have said they will not vaccinate undocumented residents.
So far, 189,660 people in Illinois have received their first dose of a two-dose vaccine regimen, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures. That's just 1.5% of the state's population and mostly hospital and health care workers.
Some hospital systems have come under scrutiny for administering vaccines to administrative employees and those who work from home or aren't at a heightened exposure risk, while health care workers who are not affiliated with hospitals are still waiting.
CDC guidelines for "Phase 1A" outlines that vaccinations should be given to "health care personnel" who "have the potential for direct or indirect exposure to patients or infectious materials."
"I've seen those things and it's unfortunate," said Richard Freeman, regional chief clinical officer at Loyola University Medical Center. "The way we did it was we looked at the CDC guidelines and we said, 'Who's a front-line health care worker?' And we defined that by risk of exposure. So, if you work in the intensive care unit or in the emergency department, you have a high risk. If you're a doctor, a nurse, somebody who cleans the floors, somebody who delivers food and you're in the ICU, you're the same priority. But we're not giving it to people who are not front line right now."
Pritzker said hospital officials are doing their best to get vaccines into the arms of those who need it.
"Rather than focus on the exactitude of the delivery ... you know, we are focused on health care workers," he said Wednesday at his first news briefing since Dec. 23. "Hospitals are trying to get to front-line workers first. I know all of them prioritized front-line workers and are working their way backward to include anyone who comes into contact with a front-line worker. So the intention, I think, is to get to the right people."
Additionally, Pritzker announced Wednesday that all 11 of the state's health regions are eligible to have mitigation restrictions reduced on Jan. 15 if key hospitalization and infection metrics are met. That will be the equivalent of one incubation period for the virus following New Year's celebrations, he noted.
Currently, the suburban Cook County region and Region 7 with Will and Kankakee counties are meeting those requirements, though positivity rates are increasing in both regions, as well as the two other suburban regions, according to IDPH figures.
All 11 regions have been under Tier 3 restrictions for more than month, which limits business operations and capacities as well as social gatherings.
• Daily Herald reporter Marni Pyke contributed to this report.