Cook County Judges — And Spouses — Offered Special Chance At COVID-19 Vaccine At Loretto Hospital

A syringe containing a dose of a Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine sits in a container during a vaccine clinic at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, Alaska. The state is the first in the nation to offer the COVID-19 vaccine to any resident 16 or older.
More than a dozen Cook County judges were offered a chance to get COVID-19 vaccines at Loretto Hospital in Chicago, WBEZ has learned. Judges aren't currently eligible to get vaccinated based on employment.
A syringe containing a dose of a Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine sits in a container during a vaccine clinic at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, Alaska. The state is the first in the nation to offer the COVID-19 vaccine to any resident 16 or older.
More than a dozen Cook County judges were offered a chance to get COVID-19 vaccines at Loretto Hospital in Chicago, WBEZ has learned. Judges aren't currently eligible to get vaccinated based on employment.

Cook County Judges — And Spouses — Offered Special Chance At COVID-19 Vaccine At Loretto Hospital

This story is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

The same hospital that wrongly vaccinated ineligible workers at Chicago’s Trump Tower also provided the chance for scarce COVID-19 shots earlier this month to more than a dozen Cook County judges — and to each judge’s spouse or a “second person” of their choosing, according to an email obtained by WBEZ.

That happened even though the city of Chicago’s rollout of the vaccine and state of Illinois rules make clear being a judge will not make someone eligible for vaccination against the coronavirus until March 29.

The email was sent by Judge Diann Marsalek, the acting presiding judge in Cook County Circuit Court’s Traffic Division, at 4:40 p.m. on March 8 to 13 other judges. Marsalek told the other judges that they and one more person of their choice could get the Pfizer vaccine at Loretto Hospital, in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, later that day.

“You will need to be there by 6:30 p.m.,” Marsalek wrote. “You can also bring a spouse or second person. I will need you to send me the name if you want to get the shot today and if you want to bring a spouse by 5:15 p.m.”

In the email, Marsalek did not say how she became aware of the opportunity to get vaccinated at Loretto, and she did not return WBEZ’s messages Wednesday.

Both the spokeswoman for Chief Judge Timothy Evans and Loretto Hospital’s chief executive, George Miller, defended the vaccinations offered to the judges. Each offered different explanations for why they thought it was legitimate to vaccinate the judges and others at a time when many who are already eligible for vaccinations have struggled to get shots due to enormous demand and limited supply.

“If a Cook County judge was vaccinated at The Loretto Hospital, he or she met the Chicago Department of Public Health’s 1B vaccination requirements, which include elected officials,” Miller, Loretto’s president and CEO, said in a statement to WBEZ.

But the city Public Health Department’s definition of 1b — which is the group being vaccinated currently — does not include judges.

There’s a category in the city’s 1b definition for an estimated 5,300 government workers in Chicago. That section mentions only employees of the U.S. Postal Service and “City government leaders” or “City elected officials critical to maintain continuity of governmental operations and services,” according to the Public Health Department’s website.

Working in a legal field does not make anybody eligible for vaccination until the 1c phase of Chicago’s vaccination rollout, which will not start for nearly two weeks and is expected to take place largely in April and May, city records show.

And at a news conference on Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the city’s public health department, said that judges are to be vaccinated in the 1c phase.

The Illinois Department of Public Health’s vaccination plan also does not describe judges — many of whom have worked remotely during the coronavirus pandemic — as being part of the ongoing 1b phase, which is for people aged 65 and over and “frontline essential workers” such as teachers, public transit agency employees and firefighters.

It’s unclear whether any of the judges on the email were eligible based on other criteria, or how many of them actually got vaccinated at Loretto that day. Miller said he could not comment on the specific judges who were offered the vaccinations due to federal privacy rules.

Democratic State Rep. LaShawn Ford, who represents the hospital in Springfield and is on the Loretto board of trustees, said it was “really, really disappointing” that judges were offered the vaccine there.

“It’s unfortunate that people would even come to the Austin community and ask for vaccines to be given when they didn’t qualify,” Ford said.

He said Miller should be reprimanded for making vaccines available to the judges and to workers at the Trump Tower, which is downtown.

“The board of the hospital must meet with the president and his team and there must be some assurance that this problem is no longer going to happen,” Ford said. “We have the vaccines and they need to stay in the Austin community.”

In December, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot held an event at Loretto, where health care workers were the first people in Chicago to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Loretto is a small safety net hospital on Chicago’s West Side. The majority of Loretto’s patients are Black and low-income, and the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected Black people and Latinos in Chicago and elsewhere.

After Block Club Chicago earlier this week revealed Loretto’s vaccinations at the Trump Tower Chicago’s hotel and residences, Loretto officials said those shots had been given in error on March 10. Hotel employees, like judges, are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

“Of course, I was disappointed to hear about it,” Lightfoot said Wednesday of Loretto’s vaccinations at the Trump Tower. “They recognize that this is a mistake and absolutely can never be repeated, and it’s a cautionary tale for any other provider.”

“We have a finite amount of vaccine in the city,” the mayor said. “We’ve been really, really careful to make sure that we’re using it in a way that prioritizes the most vulnerable people who are most at risk and at the most risk of spreading it. We’re not going to do what we’ve seen in other parts of the country and just have a free-for-all.”

One of the judges who got the email about Loretto from Marsalek declined to comment on Wednesday, and the other 12 did not reply to messages from WBEZ.

Mary Wisniewski, the spokeswoman for the chief judge’s office, said the shots at Loretto would have gone to waste had the judges and others not received them.

“Those inquiring at Loretto Hospital were told that the vaccines were already mixed and would be destroyed if not used by the end of the day, so people could go after 3:30 p.m.,” Wisniewski said. “This would not take shots from any eligible persons, but only use shots that would otherwise be destroyed.”

Asked how Marsalek knew of the chance to get vaccines at Loretto, Wisniewski replied, “Judges got the information from other judges.”

Another Cook County judge, James Shapiro, did not get the email from Marsalek but was vaccinated last month at Loretto. Shapiro declined to say who told him he could get his shots there, but he posted on Facebook that he got two doses of the Pfizer vaccine at Loretto on Feb. 2 and Feb. 23.

Shapiro, who is 61 years old, said he called Loretto and was originally told he could not get the vaccine because he was not a member of any of the phase 1B groups.

“I definitely took no for an answer,” he said.

Someone from the hospital called him back a few days later and offered him his first shot later that day, and Shapiro said Wednesday he went and got both shots at Loretto.

“I think it’s criminal to throw away potentially life-saving vaccines,” Shapiro said.

If some people are “hesitant” to take the vaccine, he said, “Then let them go to the willing.”

At the same time, the judge added, “I certainly don’t believe in jumping the queue.”

He said he did not believe he had done that.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County and public health. Reporter Dave McKinney contributed to this story.