United Center COVID-19 vaccination disconnect causes more delays

  • Jewel-Osco technician specialist Nicole Panopoulos-Sims prepares a Moderna Inc. shot for a recipient at a mass vaccination at the Itasca Recreation & Fitness Center on Monday.

    Jewel-Osco technician specialist Nicole Panopoulos-Sims prepares a Moderna Inc. shot for a recipient at a mass vaccination at the Itasca Recreation & Fitness Center on Monday. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Updated 3/9/2021 6:31 AM

The exclusion of collar county residents from COVID-19 vaccination appointments at the United Center means a longer wait for some people with serious health problems to get shots, officials indicated Monday.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency limited online inoculation appointments at the popular United Center mass vaccination site to Chicago residents on Sunday, the day people with medical conditions such as cancer or heart disease would have been eligible to register.


"FEMA on Friday decided that they wanted to change the process," Gov. J.B. Pritzker said at a Monday bill signing. "They wanted a greater focus on equity."

After weeks of frustration among seniors who couldn't get access to shots, the Thursday opening of registration for the United Center with 110,000 appointments available was a can't-miss opportunity. Thousands booked inoculations but less than 40% were from Chicago, which didn't meet FEMA goals to focus on vulnerable communities hit hard by COVID-19, including Black residents on the West Side.

The federal bombshell caused intense negotiations over the weekend between federal, state, and Chicago leaders, coming after days of publicity for the mass site promoted as being open to all Illinoisans.

"There was a lot of discussion that went on," Pritzker said, such as, "'if you're going to exclude other parts of the state, like the collar counties, how are we going to serve them?'"

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Ultimately, the federal government agreed to operate additional "federal mobile sites that we're going to be able to deploy in other places, for example in the collar counties," Pritzker said. He added that the federal government will add on to the supply of doses intended for the United Center to aid the rest of the state.

The time and location of mobile clinics has not been set.

Every United Center vaccination appointment for seniors made by 4 p.m. this past Sunday will be kept.

And some future vaccinations will be offered at the United Center to suburban Cook County residents, with more details to come this week.

The United Center will be fully operational for shots Wednesday with a limited opening Tuesday.

Meanwhile, until federal mobile vaccination sites pop up, residents in DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties with health problems that can cause severe COVID-19 outcomes (Phase 1B-Plus) need to look beyond their local health departments for shots.


Vaccinations in Illinois are prioritized with the first wave of inoculations designated for medical workers and long-term care residents (Phase 1A). The next group was seniors and essential workers like police (Phase 1B).

Pritzker opened up Phase1B-Plus on Feb. 25 but health officials in suburban Cook and the collar counties balked, explaining their vaccine supply was insufficient, and that hasn't changed.

"Over the past four weeks, the DuPage County Health Department has only received an average of 8,120 first doses each week to be distributed to health care partners across the county and to supply our own vaccination clinic, which is not nearly enough to meet the current demand for eligible persons who live or work in DuPage County and are waiting to receive their vaccine," spokeswoman Stephanie Calvillo said.

DuPage expects to open up 1B-Plus once 60% to 70% of seniors and essential workers are fully vaccinated.

Lake County Health Department Executive Director Mark Pfister noted that "we are still severely limited by the number of doses we are receiving, as our vaccinating partners could increase their volume of vaccinations if we had additional vaccine to give them."

In Kane County, "we do not have enough vaccine to meet the demand of our residents," Kane County Health Department spokeswoman Susan Stack said. "However, we are finalizing plans to provide mass vaccination here."

Regarding Cook County Department of Public Health, the agency "is moving rapidly to develop a United Center-specific equity strategy for the percentage of doses to be allocated to us," Senior Medical Officer Dr. Kiran Joshi said. "The amount of vaccine and the timing will factor greatly in these decisions, so as we know more, we can plan more precisely. We expect to be able to provide our residents with more information this week."

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