Five health care workers at a West Side hospital were the first people to be vaccinated in Chicago for COVID-19, an historic moment public officials marked as the beginning of the end of the coronavirus pandemic.
As the vaccine makes its way to Illinois hospitals and clinics this week, health care workers around the state are rolling up their sleeves, biting their lips, and waiting for their turn.
Elizabeth and Alan Van Opstal, both doctors, are scheduled to get the COVID-19 vaccine through their hospitals on Wednesday.
The moment is weighing heavily on them.
“I just cried,” Dr. Elizabeth Van Opstal said when she found out that her husband was among the first in line. “I just have been worried about him for so long.”
She works at Rush University Medical Center on the Near West Side, a large teaching hospital that has treated some of the highest numbers of COVID-19 patients in Chicago. Her husband works in the emergency departments of suburban hospitals in the NorthShore University HealthSystem.
“Between the two of us, we’ve seen so many people and treated so many people who have been so sick, and some that haven’t recovered from this,” she said through tears. “And I think you just wish they all could have it, the vaccine.”
As they prepared this week to get vaccinated, they contemplated what it means. Dr. Alan Van Opstal said he felt a little guilty about getting a shot before others. But he says he’s watched so many other staffers at the hospital put themselves at risk without hesitation.
“It’s good to know that there’ll be some protection for that sacrifice,” he said.
There will be more protection for the Van Opstal’s three children, too.
Across the country, hospital workers are volunteering or being asked to go first to get the vaccine, with the goal of protecting those who are most at risk of contracting COVID-19.
The toll of the pandemic in loss of lives, livelihoods and way of life has turned this moment into a bit of a celebration.
In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot appeared alongside health care workers at Loretto Hospital on Tuesday where five workers got vaccinated in an event broadcast on social media.
Loretto is symbolic, given that the majority of its patients are Black. In Chicago, Black and Latino residents have been disproportionately hit hardest by the virus.
“Should we applaud? I think so!” said Chicago Department of Public Health Director Allison Arwady as the vaccination was administered Tuesday.
On Monday, Gov. JB Pritzker lauded the arrival of the vaccine, calling it an important moment in history.
“We are seeing the beginning of the end of this pandemic,” he said.
But the country still has limited access to the vaccine, with an expected 109,000 doses to come to Illinois in the first week. With more than 655,000 health care workers across the state, the vaccination of these front line workers will still take some time.
On Tuesday morning, several medical workers from around the Chicago region told WBEZ their planned appointments to receive the vaccine had been delayed until later this week. A spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Public Health said the city had not heard of any vaccine shipping issues or delays, but said the department had always expected hospitals would receive their doses some time this week.
There are 96 Illinois hospitals scheduled to receive doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine this week, Illinois Public Health Department Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said Tuesday from OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, Ill., where five individuals publicly received the vaccine.
“This is going to be an extended process,” she said. “Even though this is the last mile, we have almost 13 million people in the state. Herd immunity requires maybe 80%. We’re talking 10 million people. Five have done it now. It will take quite a while to get to that 10 million.”
Ezike held off on giving a timeline for when a vaccine could be more widely available to the public, citing uncertainties around when any other vaccines may gain federal approval — such as the vaccine developed by Moderna.
“I think most of 2021 will be spent in this effort,” she said.
Not every health care worker wants to get a vaccine. There’s some skepticism about how safe it is, considering the vaccine was developed so quickly.
For those who do, hospitals are prioritizing which of their workers gets a vaccine based on their risk of getting COVID-19.
And the state and city of Chicago are placing an emphasis on ensuring Black and brown communities get access, too.
That includes workers like Dr. Alan Van Opstal, who is Latino. He said he has some other risk factors as well that make him appreciative of being toward the front of the line.
“I’m a little overweight,” he said with a laugh, and added he’s also on the wrong side of 40.
WBEZ’s Mariah Woelfel and Tony Arnold contributed.
Kristen Schorsch covers public health on WBEZ’s government and politics team. Follow her @kschorsch.