Eligibility At Chicago’s United Center COVID-19 Vaccination Site Is Confusing. Here’s The Deal.

United Center
Views from inside the United Center’s tented vaccination site that opened this week. Photo by Manuel Martinez/WBEZ Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
United Center
Views from inside the United Center’s tented vaccination site that opened this week. Photo by Manuel Martinez/WBEZ Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Eligibility At Chicago’s United Center COVID-19 Vaccination Site Is Confusing. Here’s The Deal.

City of Chicago officials are targeting seniors and residents of specific neighborhoods to get COVID-19 vaccines at the United Center, but appointments are booking up almost as fast as they become available.

The scramble for scarce vaccine appointments became fraught with confusion in the past week, as residents saw eligibility requirements at the mass vaccination site shift by the day.

Here’s a recap to catch you up on where things stand now.

Here’s what happened

Seniors aged 65 and over had exclusive access to book United Center shots starting last Thursday. But on Sunday, slots at the United Center mass vaccination site opened up to frontline essential workers and people 16 and older with underlying conditions. The site crashed almost immediately after more people started trying to book appointments.

By Monday, 50,000 appointments had been booked and the site was temporarily closed.

Elected officials held an event Tuesday celebrating the opening of the federally run mass vaccination site. At first, officials gave contradictory answers about whether there were still appointments available. But by the end of the day, the Chicago Department of Public Health said at least 168,000 people ultimately would be able to get appointments, meaning some 118,000 remained available.

By Wednesday, Chicago officials announced that anyone living in five ZIP codes – Pilsen (60608), Chatham (60619), Auburn Gresham (60620), South Shore (60649) and Ashburn (60652) – could book appointments at the United Center through a city-run website, not the usual Zocdoc website. But they needed to prove residency and use a special access code. It’s not clear how many appointments were offered, but they all appeared to be gone by Thursday morning.

Here’s what’s next

Public health officials are reserving 60% of the United Center appointments for Chicago residents. City officials say 30% of the remaining slots at the United Center will go to residents of suburban Cook County and the last 10% will go to Illinoisans who live elsewhere. But there are no details yet for how those groups can book slots to get shots. Initially, appointments could be booked via Zocdoc.com/vaccine and at 312-746-4835.

In addition to the targeted Chicago ZIP codes, seniors, frontline essential workers, and people 16 and older with underlying conditions are eligible to book appointments at the United Center, when they become available.

Meanwhile, a Chicago initiative aimed at targeting 15 neighborhoods hardest-hit by the pandemic continues to roll out. These communities have the highest rates of COVID-19 and the highest numbers of deaths, as well as significant numbers of high-risk residents, like seniors and essential workers.

Temporary pop-up vaccination clinics are open to anybody 18 and older who lives in these neighborhoods. In mid-February, the city quietly launched the first pop-up site in Belmont Cragin at Schurz High School. Oak Street Health and an army of volunteers managed to vaccinate nearly 2,000 residents over Valentine’s Day weekend.

Similar community pop-up vaccination sites have since opened in Gage Park, Englewood, West Englewood, Little Village and North Lawndale.

This weekend, additional sites are slated to open for residents of Austin, East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park and North Lawndale. These sites are exclusively for residents in these communities and all others will be turned away.

Loretto Hospital will run a vaccination clinic at Amundsen Park starting Friday and running until Apr. 17. Rush University Medical Center and PCC Community Wellness Center are opening a vaccination site at Catalyst Circle Rock Charter School this Sunday, which will remain open through Apr.18. And St. Anthony Hospital is opening a site at Breakthrough Urban Ministries FamilyPlex and Fresh Market.

Other communities that are slated to get these special vaccination sites as part of the city’s Protect Chicago Plus program include: Montclare, Back of the Yards, Archer Heights, Roseland, Washington Heights, South Deering, Humboldt Park and Chicago Lawn.

The Chicago Department of Public Health did not immediately respond to WBEZ’s request for more information about the vaccination sites in these neighborhoods.

Becky Vevea covers Chicago’s city hall and COVID-19 vaccines for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.