This story is supported by the Pulitzer Center.
Chicago’s top doctor vowed to continue to prioritize vaccinations on the city’s West Side on Friday, a day after Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration suspended the COVID-19 vaccine supply to Loretto Hospital for giving special access to shots to “well-connected individuals” — including Trump Tower workers, Cook County judges and their spouses.
The head of the city’s Department of Public Health, Dr. Allison Arwady, said there still are many other options besides Loretto for people who want to get vaccinated in the predominantly Black, low-income part of Chicago that’s been hit especially hard by the coronavirus pandemic in the past year.
And Arwady sought to strongly rebut claims by the spokeswoman for Cook County’s chief judge, Timothy Evans — who said 13 judges given a special chance to get vaccinated had taken doses that would have been tossed out otherwise.
“This idea that somehow vaccine will go to waste, to justify jumping the line — it just is not true, and [Chicago Department of Public Health] does not condone it in any setting,” Arwady said at a news conference dominated by questions about the clout vaccinations.
Block Club Chicago reported earlier this week on the vaccinations Loretto provided at Trump Tower Chicago. Then, WBEZ revealed how the top judge in the county’s traffic court invited more than a dozen colleagues to go to Loretto and get vaccinated together with their spouses or a “second person” of each judge’s choice.
Officials say neither the hotel workers nor judges — most of whom have conducted court calls online for a year now — currently meet eligibility requirements under city or state vaccination plans.
“It was disappointing to see a provider that is obviously in a very high-need part of the city, from a vaccination standpoint, be using vaccine for people who were not eligible and not working to prioritize vaccination for its own patients and its own community,” Arwady said.
She said Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration is conducting a thorough investigation into alleged favoritism by Loretto — which was told Thursday it would no longer get first doses from the city for at least another week. The hospital will still receive second doses for those who’ve already been vaccinated through the provider, the city has said.
Arwady said she did not know if or when vaccination would resume at Loretto, but she said she hoped that would happen.
“We are obviously looking in a lot of detail at all things happening at Loretto,” she said.
Although vaccines are in high demand and short supply, Arwady underscored that residents in Loretto’s Austin neighborhood can get vaccinated through other providers. She directed people to the mass vaccination site at the United Center, even though competition for appointments at the sports arena is fierce. And she said a key vaccination site at a neighborhood park that Loretto is staffing would not be canceled.
Austin is among 15 communities hardest hit by the coronavirus that the city is saturating with vaccine.
It’s not clear how much vaccine Loretto has left. A hospital spokeswoman wouldn’t say.
Arwady acknowledged the public health department doesn’t have much ability to track how the vaccines are being distributed by providers. But the city does control supply.
Some critics have said the administration’s move against Loretto was extreme and unnecessary, given the ongoing public-health crisis.
“My biggest safeguard at the moment is to say, ‘No more vaccine right now’,” Arwady said. “This is a precious resource.”
After initially defending itself, Loretto eventually said it misunderstood the guidelines for dispensing vaccines and on Friday, the hospital reprimanded CEO George Miller and chief operating officer Dr. Anosh Ahmed “for their roles in the mistakes of judgment made,” the hospital spokeswoman said. She would not say how the executives have been reprimanded.
Greg Kelley, president of SEIU Healthcare in Illinois and three other states, represents just under 200 Loretto employees, from emergency department technicians to housekeepers. He said staffers are concerned about a potential hit to Loretto’s reputation, given the hospital is a safety net that treats the most vulnerable patients. Safety net providers mostly treat low-income and uninsured patients, and often struggle to make ends meet.
Kelley said employees have long been concerned that patients and residents on the West Side have had a hard time booking vaccination appointments through the hospital.
“Our members are seeing folks get turned away,” Kelley said. “There are folks in the community that are being denied access to vaccine.”
For now, the city remains in phase 1b of the vaccination rollout, which limits access to people 65 and over and other “frontline essential workers,” such as teachers, firefighters and public transit workers. Some communities in the city hardest hit by COVID-19 have wider eligibility.
But Arwady repeatedly has said judges are in the next phase, called 1c. That does not begin in Chicago until March 29.
But a group of judges were told on March 8 that they could go to Loretto with one other person and get vaccinated, according to an email sent by Diann Marsalek, acting presiding judge in the court system’s Traffic Division.
Mary Wisniewski, the spokeswoman for the chief judge, has said any judges who might have been vaccinated “would not take shots from any eligible persons, but only use shots that would otherwise be destroyed.”
Asked about that statement, Arwady replied that this idea was “the rumor that has driven me the most crazy” during the coronavirus vaccination process.
“That is the rumor of all rumors I’m not interested in perpetuating,” Arwady said. “I cannot reiterate strongly enough that there is not vaccine that’s being thrown out.”
She said there was “no excuse for a provider to not stick to people in the current eligibility criteria” and it was “really not acceptable” to give vaccines to people who are not qualified yet.
But on Friday, Evans’ office again defended the vaccinations for judges.
“You keep promoting the idea that the judges were jumping the line,” Wisniewski told WBEZ in an email. “Judges under 65 who have been able to get these shots violated no ethical rules, but acted in a responsible manner to protect themselves, their loved ones and the public, while not taking shots away from others in the 1B category.”
But in a memo to “all judges” last month, Evans made clear to judges they were not yet eligible, despite what he described as extensive efforts to lobby for the city and state to change its guidelines to include them.
“My staff and I have had countless discussions with public health and government officials at the state, county and city levels, urging that they clarify eligibility for 1B status to include the judiciary and make the vaccine available immediately,” Evans wrote in the Feb. 17 memo, which WBEZ obtained Friday. “The city of Chicago ‘COVID Czar’ informed us that the city’s supply of vaccine was not available to judges.”
Evans said other efforts to get vaccines for all judges also failed and told them to do what they could “if other options such as private health care providers, pharmacies or other sources of vaccine are available to you.”
But Evans wrote that he was able to work with county officials to carve out an exemption called “1B-R” only for judges who are “required to interact with inmates or juvenile detainees.”
Wisniewski declined to say if any of the 13 judges who got the email from Marsalek were in fact vaccinated or if other judges got similar offers, saying Evans could not reveal “confidential medical information.”
She said the judges were told that ineligible people could get vaccinated anyway from unspecified “persons who answered calls at the phone number on the hospital’s website.”
Wisniewski would not say whether any of the judges who got the vaccination opportunity at Loretto work in person, as some judges do. The court system says it has conducted 1.5 million hours of judicial proceedings via Zoom over the past year since the pandemic closed courthouses.
Kristen Schorsch covers public health. Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow @kschorsch and @dmihalopoulos.