United Center Mass COVID-19 Vaccination Site Opens With Long Lines And 50K Booked Appointments

United Center vaccinaion
The massive, federally-run COVID-19 vaccination site that opened Tuesday at Chicago's United Center sports arena will be able to inoculate 6,000 people each day, officials say. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
United Center vaccinaion
The massive, federally-run COVID-19 vaccination site that opened Tuesday at Chicago's United Center sports arena will be able to inoculate 6,000 people each day, officials say. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

United Center Mass COVID-19 Vaccination Site Opens With Long Lines And 50K Booked Appointments

The home of the Chicago Bulls and the Blackhawks is now officially the host of the state’s largest mass vaccination site.

Government officials held a ceremonial event Tuesday morning in a parking lot outside the United Center to kick off the first vaccinations to be administered at the arena on Chicago’s West Side. The location is expected to be able to administer 6,000 vaccines each day. So far, about 50,000 appointments have been booked, Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said. Ultimately, at least 168,000 people will be able to get appointments, according to the city.

“The majority of the appointments remain available and will be focused in an equity-targeted way,” Arwady said.

Thousands of appointments have been set aside – and not publicly available – so government leaders can work on additional outreach to specific communities hardest hit by the pandemic.

“We’ve been very focused on making sure that we get the vaccine to those individuals and neighborhoods and ZIP codes that have been most dramatically hit by COVID-19,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said. “We want this to be the focus of this site and for a variety of reasons, we have concerns about whether or not those appointments were being given out in ways that are equitable.”

Over the weekend, Illinoisans living outside of Chicago were suddenly blocked from booking COVID-19 vaccine appointments at the sports arena. That abrupt change followed the revelation that more than 60% of appointments at the United Center had gone to non-Chicago residents, even though the site was located in the city with a goal of reaching Chicagoans.

Of those who booked appointments and live outside Chicago, Arwady said the majority of them are white or Asian.

“Obviously that is not representative of the communities that have been hardest hit,” Arwady said.

Of Chicago residents who signed up for appointments, about 40% to 45% were Black or Latino. In the city, these populations have been disproportionately affected by the virus.

“Regardless, we agreed across the board that we needed to take a pause and ensure that vaccine was getting to the communities where it was most needed,” Arwady said. “That remains very much the focus going forward, some targeting of ZIP codes both in Chicago and in suburban Cook.”

After a back-and-forth among government officials, Lightfoot said she expected people — including non-Chicago residents — would be able to schedule United Center appointments again later this week.

Arwady said the United Center site is going to be “extremely focused” on vaccinating people over the age of 65. Additional appointments are being set aside for the most vulnerable suburban residents who have not yet been vaccinated.

At a separate event on Tuesday, Arwady said the goal is to give about 60% of United Center appointments to Chicago residents, 30% to residents who live in suburban Cook County and the rest to people who live elsewhere in Illinois.

To boost appointments among people of color, city leaders for the next few days are focusing on reaching out to communities particularly close to the United Center, as well as four ZIP codes further south in the city. They include the Roseland, Chatham, South Shore and Woodlawn neighborhoods.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is also launching mobile vaccination sites for other parts of Illinois.

A Glimmer Of Hope

Meanwhile, as the ceremonial gathering of lawmakers took place, a line snaked down the block of people waiting to get their shots outside in a United Center parking lot. Many brought books, preparing for a long wait that didn’t materialize Tuesday morning.

For many, the line moved swiftly.

As Ethel Smith, 72, of Chicago’s Austin neighborhood on the West Side, shuffled toward the front of the line, she reflected on a difficult year. She said she last hugged her grandkids a year ago, when the pandemic started surging in Chicago.

“It’s been sad,” Smith said, her voice lowering.

But there is now a glimmer of hope. Her plans for the future: spending time with family.

Dennis Sullivan, 69, who lives around the Old Town neighborhood on the North Side, booked his appointment last week after a “bit of hassle” online and a 90-minute wait on the phone.

He said he’s looking forward to returning to some sort of normalcy.

“I was traveling last year in Vietnam and Cambodia and I came back at the end of February, so I’ve essentially been in isolation since then,” Sullivan said.

Correction: Due to erroneous information from a Chicago public health official, an earlier version of this story misstated the share of vaccination appointments at the United Center that went to people living outside Chicago.

Tony Arnold covers state politics and Kristen Schorsch covers public health for WBEZ. Follow @tonyjarnold and @kschorsch.