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Coronavirus Vaccine Could Come To Chicago By Next Week: Here’s How The City Plans To Distribute It

The vaccine will first go to health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities. But, over the months, the campaign will grow.

Influenza vaccination.
Daniel Paquet
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LOGAN SQUARE — Chicagoans could be getting vaccinated as early as next week.

Officials outlined the city’s vaccination plan during a Thursday news conference: It will start with a first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine, which could arrive next week and will be distributed among the city’s hospitals. The vaccine will first go to health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities.

But, over the months, the campaign will grow. More vaccine doses will be delivered to Chicago weekly, and doses from other vaccines — like Moderna’s — will start coming in and being used if they’re approved federally.

The vaccination process will be slow, and there likely won’t be wider availability until the spring, officials said.

RELATED: A Coronavirus Vaccine Is Coming. Here’s Everything You Need To Know About Getting One In Chicago

That’s because the city expects to receive just 23,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine during the first week it’s available. Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the city’s Department of Public Health, said Chicago will likely receive similar-sized shipments of vaccine every week after that, and could get 30,000-40,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine when it’s approved.

But there are 400,000 health care workers who get priority access to the vaccine, plus thousands of residents and staffers at Chicago’s 128 long-term care facilities. And everyone will need two doses of the vaccine, with the doses about a month apart.

Once those people have been vaccinated, the campaign will expand.

Here’s how it’ll work:

Vaccine Campaign

The city will distribute the first 23,000 vaccine doses among Chicago hospitals, which will then vaccinate health care workers. Hospitals are expected to give priority to people working directly with COVID-19 patients.

Residents and staff in long-term care facilities will also be prioritized. The city is partnering with organizations like Walgreens to vaccinate people in those facilities. Arwady said she expects vaccines to begin going out to all long-term facilities in the city by the second or third week of the campaign.

The Chicago Department of Public Health will store vaccines as needed for hospitals that don’t have the ultra-cold storage needed for the Pfizer vaccine.

Chicago only expects to get 100,000-150,000 vaccine doses during the first month they’re available, though even that is just an estimate, Arwady said.

Then, starting in late December or early January, the city will start setting up mass vaccination sites where health care workers can go to be vaccinated, Arwady said. They’ll be aimed at workers who aren’t employed at hospitals and will be appointment-only.

“Much further down the line,” possibly in late March, the city expects to be able to start vaccinating essential employees, people older than 65 and people with underlying medical conditions, Arwady said.

A federal committee will determine who falls into the “essential worker” category and how members of that group are prioritized — if teachers should be vaccinated before grocery workers, for example.

Once that happens, the city will still run its mass testing sites, but it will also provide vaccine doses to partners like doctors and pharmacies so people can get vaccinated at those places, Arwady said.

Arwady said she isn’t sure when wider vaccination would be available to people who don’t fall into those categories, as so much depends on the availability of vaccine doses.

“I can tell you just very high level, the city of Chicago is broadly anticipating that we may be in the direct vaccination business for about six months,” Arwady said. “We’re hoping that in about six months there will be enough widespread vaccine that it will be very widely available. We won’t need to be doing more of those vaccination sites, etc.”

Racial Equity

The coronavirus pandemic has had an outsize impact on Black and Latino Chicagoans. The city has reported 3,642 deaths from COVID-19 — but just 20.8 percent of those victims have been white, while 40 percent have been Black and 33 percent Latino.

So when it comes to the vaccination campaign, the city will do everything through an “equity lens,” Lightfoot said.

The city’s initial 23,000 doses of vaccine will be distributed among all 34 hospitals in Chicago, though officials did not immediately describe how they would be allocated.

But from there, officials’ hands are somewhat bound by restrictions on how and to whom the vaccine can be distributed.

The city and state have agreed to follow vaccination recommendations from a federal group, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. That agreement was required for Chicago and the rest of Illinois to be given vaccine doses.

So far, the federal committee has only officially voted to prioritize giving COVID-19 vaccines to health care workers and residents and staff in long-term care facilities. After that, Arwady said she expects the group to prioritize giving doses to essential workers, people older than 65 and people with underlying health conditions that make them more at risk from coronavirus.

Committee members have not indicated if they’ll prioritize giving the vaccine to Black people and other people of color, despite the disproportionate losses those communities have faced nationally.

Still, Arwady said Black residents make up a higher percentage of residents and staff members in nursing facilities, and those communities are being given priority access to the vaccine.

And if essential workers are prioritized in the next round for vaccination, as expected, that would also help Black and Latino communities since they tend to have more essential workers, Arwady said.

“We’ll wait for that federal guidance, and we can’t say who would be in that next group until that comes. But we’ll follow that, and we’re excited about essential workers probably being in that next category” because it means we’ll have an opportunity to push vaccine in communities hit hardest, she said.

Children and pregnant people likely won’t be able to get vaccinated until summer at the earliest because research is ongoing to ensure the vaccines are safe for children and pregnant people, Arwady has previosuly said.

Just as the city has with its coronavirus data, it will track vaccination data by people’s race and ethnicity, age and home ZIP code, Arwady said. Officials will use that data to make decisions.

“We’ll be looking at that data week after week after week and pushing additional resources where those are most needed,” Arwady said.

And once vaccination becomes more widespread, the city will have vaccine sites that it will send to communities most impacted by the virus, Arwady said.

The vaccine will be free for all people, as well.

Countering Skepticism

The city will have to combat skepticism about the vaccine — especially among Chicagoans of color, Arwady said.

For months already, Arwady and other officials have emphasized vaccines go through rigorous studies and trials, and neither she nor state or federal officials would approve a vaccine if it came with serious side effects.

But doubt remains for many. Only 47 percent of American say they’re willing now to be vaccinated, according to survey results released Thursday from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

That divide widens on racial lines: 53 percent of white respondents said they’d get the vaccine immediately, while only 24 percent of Black respondents said they’re ready to be vaccinated.

People of color have expressed wariness, mindful of how government agencies have previously experimented medically on Black Americans without their permission or knowledge.

That distrust plays out in a deadly way around flu season: Black Chicagoans are more likely be admitted to the hospital and ICU for flu, and to die from flu, but they’re less likely to get a flu vaccine, Arwady said. The city wants to prevent similar issues once the COVID-19 vaccine is available.

“We know that there needs to be some additional work,” Arwady said. “And for very real, legacy reasons, there is distrust and a lot of need to answer questions.”

To counter that, the city is “doing some planning and some message testing” on Black and Latino Chicagoans, Arwady said.

The city will do “quite a bit more outreach and engagement in the neighborhoods and in the communities that historically we’ve seen lower vaccine uptake in,” Arwady said.

The city is also pairing with “trusted messengers” who will be able to explain and spread accurate information about the vaccine in skeptical communities, Arwady said. Those messengers will include vaccinated health care workers.

“We really hope to have a very widespread community conversation about vaccine in the late winter to early spring as we’re starting to get to a point where vaccine is more widely available, and you’ll be hearing a lot more about that,” Arwady said.

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