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Finding A Coronavirus Vaccine Appointment In Chicago Is ‘Like The Hunger Games’ — But City Says It’s Focused On Equity, Not Just Speed

Only about 6 percent of Chicago's population has received their first shot, meaning the city ranks among the worst in the nation for its vaccine rollout. Officials said their focus on reaching the most vulnerable people is slowing things down, but is "the right thing to do."

A city vaccination site for health care workers.
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CHICAGO — Thousands of Chicagoans are scrambling to find coronavirus vaccine appointments, staying up until midnight to refresh pharmacy websites or calling doctor’s offices again and again in hopes something will open up.

Residents eligible to get the vaccine — older people and frontline workers — are struggling to find reliable information about where to get vaccinated and how to set up an appointment. When they finally reach an appointment calendar, they’re greeted with the same message: none available.

“It’s like the Hunger Games,” said a city worker who recently received her first shot after days of waking up in the middle of the night to refresh vaccination websites.

The city worker, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions, said she worries seniors and other people who aren’t tech-savvy are being shut out of the process, too.

“Even if you fall into a category, you have to hunt to get a vaccine,” she said. “It’s not going to come to you.”

There’s a perfect storm of issues: Demand for the vaccine is high, while supply is low. The city is trying to ensure there are doses for residents most at risk and those in the hardest-hit communities. And health care providers are scrambling to work within health department guidelines while keeping up with the huge demand.

The result: Many people left increasingly frustrated and worried — and only about 6 percent of Chicago’s population has received their first shot, which would mean the city ranks among the worst in the nation.

And so far, the bulk of vaccines have gone to white residents and people living on the North Side. That’s fueled concerns Black and Latino communities — which have faced disproportionate losses during the pandemic — will be shut out even as the city says it’s promoting equity.

City leaders are taking steps to cut down on confusion and ensure the most vulnerable people get vaccinated first. A new program, Protect Chicago Plus, is aimed at increasing vaccinations in neighborhoods that have faced the most hardship during the pandemic.

But the city receives fewer than 40,000 doses of vaccine per week — not nearly enough to meet the huge demand, fueling “a little bit of a frenzy” over public appointments, said Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

What Chicago needs — and can handle — is more vaccine doses, Arwady has repeatedly said. Getting those from the federal government would make the biggest difference in the city’s campaign, she told Block Club on Wednesday.

“In list of one to 10 of what I need most, one through nine are just more vaccine,” she said.

Dr. Alison Arwady gets her second vaccine dose at a city-run site.

‘Impossible’ To Find Appointments

Chicago moved into the second part of its vaccination campaign, dubbed Phase 1B, on Jan. 25. More than 360,000 Chicagoans who are 65 or older and more than 350,000 frontline workers are eligible to be vaccinated during this phase — as well as tens of thousands of health care workers left over from Phase 1A.

But the city only gets enough doses from the federal government to vaccinate about 5,700 people per day.

North Center resident Leslie Millenson should be given special priority during Phase 1B because she’s 68 years old and has an underlying health condition — but she hasn’t been able to get a vaccination appointment.

Like so many Chicagoans, Millenson has tried everything — her doctor’s office, local pharmacies and hospitals — but has come up empty. It’s added even more stress to the everyday concerns of life during the pandemic.

“When you get the idea that you’re going to be released from isolation, you begin to really look forward to being able to at least see some people even if it’s with masks on,” she said. “Then when it becomes apparent that no, no it’s going to be at least a couple of months, it just enhances your anxiety about the whole situation.

“I’m not sure how people are getting appointments … because as far as I can tell, it’s impossible.”

In an effort to help people like Millenson, Arwady announced Tuesday the city partnered with Zocdoc to create a more centralized platform where people can schedule vaccination appointments when they’re available, instead of searching various websites.

Slots on Zocdoc filled up almost immediately.

RELATED: Here’s How You Can Get Vaccinated Against Coronavirus In Chicago

Still, Chicago is determined to do all vaccinations by appointment, looking to avoid the long lines, line-jumping and chaos seen in places that have used other strategies.

The city has pursued this strategy of limiting publicly available appointments out of necessity — and to try to ensure there’s equity, Arwady said.

Chicago doesn’t get enough vaccine doses to inoculate everyone who’s eligible all at once. And the city couldn’t create a registry where everyone can sign up at once and the city dole out appointments because the city does not have records on everyone, so it can’t determine people’s eligibility and need, Arwady said.

If the city did make all appointments publicly available, there’s a risk people “most motivated” and able to get the vaccine — like people who have the means to drive anywhere or sit for hours at a computer — would snag prime appointments and the people who are actually most in need would miss out, Arwady said.

“This is why we don’t make all of our appointments first-come, first-served,” Arwady said. “The absolute fastest way to vaccinate the largest number of people would be to say, ‘Come one, come all. Who wants to sign up? Who’s willing to drive the furthest? Who’s the most motivated?’ Those are the people who are gonna show up.

“But that is not the way to get the people vaccinated who most need to be vaccinated.”

Instead, the city is focusing on getting vaccines to the people most in need by providing doses to hospitals and asking doctors to contact patients who are at highest risk — particularly those 75 and older and people with underlying health conditions — to offer them appointments. Hospitals are doing more than half of all vaccinations in Chicago.

The city is also partnering with organizations that work with older people, like AARP and meal delivery services, to connect with those residents and provide them with information about vaccinations and how to get appointments, Arwady said. The health department has a team focused on seniors, and they recognize internet-based approaches aren’t always best, Arwady said.

Those efforts have translated into one in eight Chicagoans 65 or older — the people most at risk — having gotten their first shot, compared to one in 14 Chicagoans who are 18 or older.

For frontline workers, the health department contacts employers and provides them with appointments at city-run mass vaccination sites. Those sites are not open to the public.

Still, some eligible residents have been left wondering why they haven’t heard yet from their doctor. They refresh pharmacy appointment sites over and over. Arwady said she knows that’s frustrating.

“But there is a lot of work happening, and a lot of the people who we most need to get vaccinated are getting vaccinated,” Arwady said. “Everybody is going to get a vaccine in Chicago.

“That is going to happen.”

A city vaccination site for health care workers.

Equity Concerns

Despite the city’s efforts — and a promise from Mayor Lori Lightfoot that equity would be at the center of Chicago’s vaccination campaign — some are concerned Chicago is already leaving behind people of color.

Last week, officials released data that estimated 53 percent of the people vaccinated by Jan. 25 were white, and just 15 percent were Black and 17 percent Latino — even though communities of color have faced the most hardship during the pandemic.

Arwady said that’s likely because Phase 1B didn’t begin until Jan. 25; prior to that, vaccinations were only available to health care workers, and doctors and nurses — who are more often white — were the most likely to ask to be vaccinated. And the people most willing to get vaccinated so far have been people with the highest level of education and highest income, “and that also does go along with more often being white,” Arwady said. It’s just one of many inequities the pandemic has exacerbated.

RELATED: Some West Siders Skeptical Of Coronavirus Vaccines, But City Hopes To Earn Their Trust With An Equitable Distribution Plan

Community groups and leaders are calling on the city to add more vaccination sites on the West and South sides, where communities of color have faced a disproportionate number of deaths from COVID-19 and confirmed cases.

Now that vaccinations are more widely available, the city is seeing improvements in the distribution of vaccine, Arwady said. As of Tuesday, 19.9 percent of vaccinations have been provided to Latino Chicagoans, 19 percent to Black Chicagoans and 49.7 percent to white Chicagoans.

She expects to see more people of color getting vaccinated as 1B — and, after that, 1C — continues.

Still, there’s a long way to go, Arwady said.

To combat the inequities seen in Phase 1A, the city announced last week it will target 15 community areas on the South and West sides with a vaccination campaign called Protect Chicago Plus. The city plans to connect with religious groups, community organizations and leaders to educate residents about the vaccines and to sign them up for appointments.

The city is also setting up vaccine sites and events in those communities that will only be open to actual residents — meaning people from whiter, more affluent parts of the city won’t be able to drive in and snag an appointment from a resident in need as seen in other parts of the country.

“It’s not just about, ‘Is it fair?’ It’s about, ‘How do we get past COVID as a city?’ And it does us no good to have some of our wealthiest, whitest parts of the city extremely vaccinated when those, in a lot of ways, are the lowest risk …,” especially if that means other areas, like homeless shelters or neighborhoods that have faced worse outbreaks, aren’t getting vaccine doses, Arwady said.

These efforts do limit how many vaccine appointments can be publicly available.

“And I know that’s frustrating for people, but it is also the right thing to do in terms of trying to make sure vaccine gets into the settings” that are higher-risk, Arwady said.

‘Doses Are So Precious’

Amid all this, health care providers and the city are trying to find ways to stretch the vaccine supply — and, somehow, get more — to keep up with what one doctor described as a “tidal wave” of demand.

More than 10,000 doses were administered per day, on average, in Chicago during the past week, according to health department data. Arwady said the city and providers have administered and reported 78 percent of the doses sent to Chicago within a week of getting them, though the city’s goal is to get that number to 85 percent and higher.

Arwady has said she wishes Chicago was getting 150,000 doses of vaccine per week, but Chicago gets less than 18,000 doses per week of the Pfizer vaccine, and it’s never gotten more than 23,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine in a week.

The Biden administration recently agreed to let Chicago, Illinois and other places take back unused vaccine doses from long-term care facilities. That means Chicago will get a one-time bump of thousands of doses of vaccines.

But the city is always looking for more doses. Any time there’s a potential partnership or program that Chicago can join, Arwady’s overriding question is, “Does it come with more vaccine?” she said.

The Chicago Department of Public Health is also pressuring the federal government to plan more on how it will vaccinate its employees who work in Chicago, Arwady said. The federal government is the top employer in the city, so if the feds committed to inoculating those people, it’d relieve a significant burden for the city.

The city does have the ability to handle more doses, officials said — it just isn’t getting them.

“That’s the major problem,” Jose Sanchez, president of Humboldt Park Health, formerly Norwegian Hospital, said in a news conference Wednesday. “We have the infrastructure. We could do a lot more than what we’re doing today if we had the vaccines that we need.”

The issue is especially felt in neighborhoods like Humboldt Park, where the rate of infection is much higher than the city average.

“I wish we could have more vaccine so that way we could really roll it out to everyone,” Sanchez said.

Because of the limited supply, health care workers at hospitals and clinics are finding themselves struggling to make “game-time decisions” when a patient comes in who is technically ineligible but who is at higher risk because of their profession, age or an underlying health condition.

“We’ve had to say to people, ‘You’re not in 1A. Can you wait until the end of the night? If we have extra doses, we’ll do what we have to do make sure that dose is used,'” said Dr. Ali Khan, Oak Street Health’s executive medical director. Oak Street Health has clinics in neighborhoods across the city, including Avalon Park, Brighton Park and Englewood, communities of color which have had devastating outbreaks.

The city is trying to prevent doses from being wasted, and it’s allowed providers to vaccinate people who aren’t eligible if the doses would otherwise go unused and have to be tossed.

Khan said they’re trying to honor the city’s eligibility guidelines “to the fullest extent possible,” but the reality is some days they have extra doses and their moral directive is to get shots in arms.

“We will not waste doses,” Khan said. “The stories you hear about Walgreens throwing away a dose — as a physician, that hurts my soul … . The doses are so precious.”

A man is vaccinated at Rush Hospital.

‘We’re One Of The Few Fighting This Fight’

Loretto Hospital in Austin has been busy. The hospital recently administered nearly 400 vaccinations in one day, far more than the city’s initial expectation of 100 a week, said Crystal Carey, the hospital’s emergency department director.

But the hospital is only vaccinating a fraction of the population in Austin, the second-largest neighborhood in Chicago whose predominately Black population was hard hit by the virus.

“We’re the only hospital in Austin. We’re one of the few fighting this fight,” Carey said. “They need to open up more vaccination clinics at every other street corner. We’re just one place trying to do our part, but the city, the government — they need to step up and … go into these communities.”

Loretto and other hospitals in under-resourced neighborhoods are working to get hard-to-reach and skeptical residents in the door. They’re battling a long legacy of medical systems abusing and neglecting communities of color.

To combat this, Loretto plans to partner with block clubs and police to reach young Black residents when the city makes vaccines available to the broader population. Humboldt Park Health aims to bring vaccines to several majority-Latino senior homes in the area.

Longtime Austin resident and grocery store worker Lydia Little said she was wary of the vaccine at first. But after talking to her friends who are nurses and watching Dr. Ngozi Ezike, head of the Illinois Department of Public Health, get her shot on the news, Little, who is Black, made an appointment at Loretto.

The hard part came after the appointment, in conversations with people she knows. Little said she’s received a fair amount of “pushback” since getting her first shot so she’s decided not to tell anyone else she got it.

“A lot of people are looking for … a little more research on this shot,” Little said. “They need a lot of people who they trust to have a conversation about it, show them they’re taking a shot as well.”

But unlike many Chicagoans, Little said she had an easy time booking an appointment. Now she feels like she’s wearing “a little shield” at work.

“I don’t have the worry of, ‘If somebody walks past, I’m going to get it,'” she said.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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