State health department faces tough questions on COVID-19 vaccine deployment
A "Hunger Games" of COVID-19 vaccine distribution for teachers and wild disparities in vaccine doses from week to week were among the problems Illinois Department of Public Health leaders addressed Thursday during a virtual state Senate hearing on the agency's handling of the inoculation rollout.
The session came as lawmakers' phones ring off the hook with complaints about the limited supply of shots, confusion over how to get appointments, and a lack of communication, especially for people age 65 and older.
"Many people across the state who are eligible for the vaccine haven't been able to get their dose -- and that's disheartening," said state Sen. Julie Morrison, a Lake Forest Democrat who organized the session.
The state is receiving about 280,000 vaccines a week from the federal government, which isn't enough to meet demand, IDPH officials said.
"We knew six months ago that the doses would be limited in the beginning," IDPH Director Ngozi Ezike said, noting the federal government controls the vaccine distribution. "We're continuing to ask for patience as we have this trickle of vaccines. But I know that patience has run thin as people are worried for their safety and the safety of their loved ones."
The White House has promised to increase supplies to states from 8.6 million doses a week when President Joe Biden took office Jan. 20 to 11 million, a 28% increase.
"We will be giving out the vaccine as quickly as we can get it," Ezike said. "We have been administering over and above what we've been getting, making sure we cut into any reserves, and within a matter of weeks there won't be any reserves left."
Teachers have described the process of getting vaccinated as "The Hunger Games," Democratic Sen. Laura Fine of Glenview said, referencing the film and book franchise featuring forced competition to the death.
"There's no really direct way for the teachers to have access to vaccines. Is anything being planned for vaccination of teachers?" she asked.
"Educators are being vaccinated as we speak," said Andrew Friend, IDPH Office of Preparedness and Response deputy director. "But it's going to look different in each area. Each different jurisdiction has its own local health department plan for mass vaccinations."
Republican State Sen. John Curran of Downers Grove asked about inconsistencies in doses allocated each week to health departments. For DuPage County, amounts range from 10,000 a week to 23,000 a week, he said.
"I've been notified next week that's actually going to drop to 2,400. That's a real barrier to scheduling and administering of vaccines when you have these gross, rapid changes," he said.
Friend said the federal government now is providing three-week projections of dose shipments to states, which should allow local departments to plan ahead.
The state is building capacity and with Illinois National Guard assistance could offer more than 900,000 vaccines a week, Friend said. Assuming Johnson & Johnson's new vaccine, which requires only one dose, is approved, there will "be a tsunami of vaccinations," he commented.
State Sen. Karina Villa of West Chicago referenced the high rate of COVID-19 cases in Black and Hispanic communities and the need to vaccinate essential workers in factory and warehouse jobs. "There are many manufacturers in my area and they are willing to provide vaccinations at their locations," she said.
But setting up mobile vaccination sites is up to local health departments -- some of which don't have the resources to assist, she noted.
"What can be done to get attention to these very important essential workers?" she asked.
The state on Jan. 26 expanded vaccinations from the first wave of health care workers and long-term care residents (Phase 1A) to a second group of people age 65 and older plus essential workers like police, firefighters, teachers, and factory and grocery workers (Phase 1B). Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday announced plans to open eligibility to people under 65 with certain medical conditions beginning Feb. 25, though suburban Cook County and Chicago leaders say they won't yet do so.
Expanded eligibility left residents blaming local health departments when the supply fell short, Stephenson County Public Health Administrator Craig Beintema said. "You can say '1B is open up' but you need to continue the sentence to say 'we don't have the vaccine,'" he said.