'It's certainly not our first choice': Suburban residents make hourslong treks for vaccinations

  • Occupational therapist Lauren Green, of Hometown, winces as she receives the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from Oak Street Health nurse Tiffany Pipkins at a mass-vaccination event at the South suburban Cook County clinic in January.

    Occupational therapist Lauren Green, of Hometown, winces as she receives the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from Oak Street Health nurse Tiffany Pipkins at a mass-vaccination event at the South suburban Cook County clinic in January. Jake Griffin | Staff Photographer, Jan. 19

Updated 3/2/2021 8:53 AM

When Dave Wiegers' wife was called back to her job as a substitute teacher in Lake County, she was offered a COVID-19 vaccine through the school district.

Wiegers, a 70-year-old from Gurnee with some minor underlying health conditions, did not have that same opportunity.


"I thought that if she goes back to the classroom, there's a chance she could be asymptomatic and pass it along to me," Wiegers said. "So I started looking for appointments, and when I couldn't find anything around here, I just started drawing my circle a little wider."

His circle reached 230 miles wide before he found an appointment last week at a Walgreens in Springfield.

Many suburban residents, frustrated by the lack of vaccine doses in the Chicago area and the addition of even more eligible residents last week, have been gassing up their cars to make lengthy excursions to get a vaccine.

"In early February a friend suggested contacting a Kroger store in South Bend, (Indiana), where my wife and I were able to make an appointment for our first Moderna vaccination and a subsequent March 3 date for the second shot," said Aurora resident Al Davis. "I believe it's embarrassing to the state and DuPage County that an 86-year-old had to drive two hours -- out of state -- to get the vaccine. It's certainly not our first choice."

Illinois Department of Public Health officials announced Monday that another 50,897 doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered throughout the state. Almost half those shots were second doses, and the state is reporting it has used 86.6% of the doses it has received.

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Still, only about 15% of the state's population has received at least one shot in the nearly three months vaccines have been available.

Vaccine appointments in the suburbs are more scarce than in other parts of the state because many doses are going to people who work in Illinois but live out of state, and the supply of doses to the suburbs isn't proportional to the suburban population, according to IDPH and local health department figures.

"I wouldn't drive six hours for a shot, but three hours seemed reasonable," Wiegers said. "Plus I had other things I could get done in Springfield."

More than 4 million Illinois residents were already eligible for the vaccine before health officials opened up eligibility to medically vulnerable residents under age 65 last week. Because of the already short supply of doses, suburban health departments said they couldn't open appointments to those individuals yet. And most wouldn't offer a timeline when the newly eligible would be allowed to make appointments.

That doesn't mean the medically vulnerable suburban residents under 65 must travel to get vaccinated.

Most other vaccine providers in the suburbs, like pharmacies and hospital networks, did open their schedules to include what the state is calling the Phase 1B-plus group. Appointments and inventory remain in short supply, however.


To date, Illinois has put 2,756,831 doses into the arms of residents and workers in the state.

IDPH officials also reported 835,597 Illinois residents and workers are fully vaccinated.

The state has averaged 77,876 inoculations a day over the past week, as well as 37,762 people becoming fully vaccinated each day over the same seven-day span, IDPH records show.

Federal officials also announced the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is starting to be shipped to states. That has made many local and state health officials hopeful that vaccination appointments will begin to ramp up and ease the frustration of residents still waiting.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the country's COVID-19 response team, said over the weekend that since the vaccine rollout began in mid-December, there have been no reports of anyone who received even a single dose being hospitalized with a COVID-19 infection or dying of the disease.

Meanwhile, IDPH officials also reported another 20 COVID-19 deaths Monday, with 1,143 new cases of the disease diagnosed.

That brings the state's death toll from the respiratory disease to 20,536, while 1,187,839 Illinois residents have been infected, according to IDPH figures.

Hospitals statewide reported 1,288 patients being treated for COVID-19 infections. Of those hospitalized, 308 were in intensive care, according to IDPH records.

The state's seven-day case positivity rate is starting March at 2.4%. A month ago it was at 3.9%.

Case positivity allows health officials to track infections among a specific population group. A seven-day average is used to smooth out any anomalies in the daily reporting of new cases and test results.

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