CHICAGO — As health officials urge people to get the vaccine that protects against the respiratory virus known as RSV, some Chicago parents say they are struggling to find it.
RSV, also known as respiratory syncytial virus, is a common virus that typically circulates from November to March. While RSV usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, Dr. Ajanta Patel, medical director of chronic disease prevention and health promotion at the Chicago Department of Public Health, said RSV has “historically been a huge problem” for babies.
Last fall, hospitals reported an earlier-than-usual uptick in RSV cases among infants and young kids.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends pregnant people between 32 and 36 weeks get the Pfizer RSV maternal vaccine to protect their fetus. The center also recommends an RSV passive immunization for infants up to 8 months old and babies between 8-19 months who are at increased risk for severe RSV.
Emily Lutz, a Wicker Park mom-to-be who is 32 weeks pregnant with twins, heard about the newly approved vaccine from her mother-in-law. Because RSV is sometimes fatal, she wanted to get the vaccine and pass antibodies onto her babies.
“The window [for pregnant people] is pretty narrow,” Lutz said. “For me with twins, I could go pretty much any day now. So I really wanted to get that in.”
But Lutz said her obstetrician’s office, like many others, is low on stock. She hopes she’ll be able to get it, but will take extra precautions for her twins if she can’t.
“We know children who have had scary hospital stays from contracting RSV who were older than [our 4-month-old daughter],” said Abby Schmeling, another parent with no clear answers on where to find the CDC-approved RSV vaccine. “For our family, health and safety come first, so the decision to utilize the resources we have available is an easy one.”
Patel said she’s received communication from the Illinois Department of Health that as of right now, it’s hard to get the RSV vaccine for infants. She said it’s a transitional problem, similar to what Americans saw between the initial vaccine announcement during the COVID-19 pandemic and the actual rollout.
Several factors could be behind the slowdown, Patel said: Clinical office needs, ordering, and billing and coding are all things that take time.
As an expectant mother herself, Patel sympathizes with those who are worried because the window for those who qualify to get the vaccine is so tight.
After spending a few weeks looking into the RSV maternal vaccine for herself, Patel received her dose on Tuesday. She describes her own method as a “temporary workaround,” one that might be helpful for pregnant women who are on the cusp of not qualifying for the vaccine — but maybe not a realistic solution for everyone.
Patel said she received a paper prescription from her OB-GYN, picked up a dosage at Walgreens — who said they couldn’t administer it to her directly — and then went back to her doctor’s office with the dose to administer it.
Patel said Walgreens has the Pfizer RSV vaccine in stock, while other pharmacies did not.
Patel said expectant parents should check with their obstetrician clinic first about vaccine availability, and then ask their future pediatrician’s office if it plans to stock the RSV passive immunization. Infants can receive the RSV passive immunization at their first pediatric visit 3-5 days after birth.
“I think if your pediatrician’s office is going to have that stuff in stock and can confirm for you that that they’ll be able to administer it to your baby around the time that you’re anticipating that your baby will be due, I would say, ‘OK, do that,’” Patel said. “I would not fight the good fight on trying to get the maternal RSV vaccine.”
Kara Intrieri is a Logan Square mom whose son is 7 weeks old. Her pediatrician’s office said it didn’t know when the vaccine would become available at his 1-month appointment, and she hasn’t heard any updates in the weeks since.
“It’s frustrating to read that a [passive immunization] is available but not be able to get it,” Intrieri said.
Patel said parents of infants might have to play more of an advocacy role by calling their pediatrician and asking that they start placing orders.
“I really feel that part of the problem is these folks are not ordering it. I think that offices need to order it,” Patel said. “Ask to speak to your clinic manager, ask to speak to somebody who has the capacity to execute on putting together a protocol for the office.”
While some kids might age out of the window to get the vaccine, Patel said that is in itself good news because it means they are no longer as vulnerable to RSV.
RSV protections should be covered under Medicaid for pregnant people, Patel said, and children should be able to get the vaccine through Illinois’ Vaccines for Children program. For those with private insurance, she encourages calling ahead of an appointment.
Patel hopes the enthusiasm surrounding the vaccine won’t fade out as stock rolls in.
“From a public health standpoint, let’s all try to be happy that it is actually in existence,” Patel said. “It’s going to come as a disappointment for those who just missed the cut-off, but this is a very big win overall for kids’ health and for infants’ health, just to know that it is available.”
Adults 60 and up also qualify for RSV vaccines, and can find one-dose GSK and Pfizer RSV vaccines at most retail pharmacies, including Walgreens, CVS and Jewel-Osco, Patel said. Medicare Part D covers the shot.
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