After a slow start vaccinating the most vulnerable Illinois residents against the coronavirus, CVS Health and Walgreens have picked up the pace and appear on track to meet a state-imposed Monday deadline to finish their first round of shots in 1,800 long-term care sites.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the deadline last month as his administration and the pharmacy giants came under fire for the pace of inoculations in those facilities, which account for nearly half of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.
“I think it has been a well-coordinated effort,” said Karin Zosel, executive director of the Affordable Assisted Living Coalition, a group that lobbies lawmakers on behalf of about 150 supportive-living communities, some of which are getting their first visit by CVS or Walgreens nearly eight weeks after Illinois launched its vaccinations.
Zosel said she is receiving positive feedback from coalition members, which accept Medicaid and mainly attract low-income people, after initial “disappointment” that most assisted-living sites outside Chicago had to wait until late January before they saw any vaccinations.
Walgreens and CVS reported administering 48,807 doses at long-term care sites during the week ending Feb. 1, a 75% increase over the previous week. The vaccinations have continued at roughly that pace ever since.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last fall contracted with CVS and Walgreens to carry out long-term care inoculations across the country. Under the plan, the pharmacies prioritize skilled-nursing facilities, then assisted-living and other congregate homes.
The companies visit for the first round of vaccinations, then for the second dose three to four weeks later. They come a third time for anyone who missed an earlier shot.
Both CVS and Walgreens reported last month they had held the first clinics at all 641 of the state’s skilled nursing facilities.
As of Thursday, Walgreens reported holding a second clinic at 90% of the Chicago skilled nursing facilities to which the company had been assigned. Outside the city, the Deerfield-based chain reported a second clinic at all of its skilled nursing facilities. At its assisted-living sites, Walgreens reported completing the first round of vaccinations at 93% in Chicago and 87% elsewhere in the state.
CVS, meantime, reported on Thursday that it had provided the second round of shots at nearly 100% of its skilled-nursing facilities across the state. The Rhode Island-based company reported finishing the first round of its assisted-living vaccinations at all of its Chicago sites and at 81% elsewhere.
On Friday, neither CVS nor Walgreens answered how many employees they had working on the Illinois vaccinations or whether they would meet Pritzker’s Monday deadline, saying only that the first round of vaccinations would be completed in “mid-February.”
“We continue to work in close partnership with the state to complete our joint mission to vaccinate residents and staff at the long-term care facilities in Illinois,” CVS said in a statement.
Apart from the pace of clinics, the vaccination campaign has been hamstrung by “hesitancy” among the industry’s workers. The CDC reported last week on a sample of 11,460 skilled-nursing facilities in which at least one vaccination clinic had taken place. At those sites, 77.8% residents had received a dose but among employees that number fell to just 37.5%.
The report urged “strategies to address structural barriers, such as scheduling around shift work or provision of paid medical leave for possible post-vaccination side effects.”
Illinois nursing homes and advocates for residents and workers have mounted pro-vaccination education and publicity efforts. SEIU Healthcare, a union that represents about 12,000 nursing home employees, said hundreds of health care workers would get vaccinated at three Chicago-area community colleges Saturday to show that the process is safe.
If such efforts prove successful and more long-term care workers get their first dose, thousands could lack the booster shot after the pharmacy chains complete their three clinics at each facility.
Zosel said Illinois public-health officials are discussing what to do for these workers. She suggested follow-up clinics at facilities by firms that specialize in congregate care, such as Green Tree Pharmacy, based in downstate Minonk, and Medication Management Partners of southwest suburban Crestwood.
The long-term care vaccinations, meantime, appear to be driving down COVID-19 infection and death numbers. The Illinois Department of Public Health recorded 861 new cases and 85 fatalities among residents during the week ending Friday. That was the industry’s lowest weekly death tally since October.