Even as Illinois residents currently eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine struggle to make an appointment, the state is expanding who is eligible to get vaccinated.
But both the City of Chicago, which has its own vaccine supply separate from the state, and suburban Cook County will not be expanding its vaccine eligibility to include those groups of people so quickly, according to a joint statement by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
The qualified individuals outside of Chicago and Cook County would be added to the current list of 3.2 million Illinois residents eligible for the vaccine, which includes those aged 65 and over and essential frontline workers such as postal workers, grocery store employees, teachers and daycare workers, prison employees and inmates and manufacturers can get vaccinated.
“Those who are under 65 and live with comorbidities have an elevated risk of serious complications or even death if they contract COVID-19,” Pritzker said Wednesday. “So as quickly as we receive enough vaccine supply, we need to waste no time in protecting them.”
Pritzker said he made the decision following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The expansion was met with praise from advocates for people with disabilities.
“People with disabilities often have a unique set of high-risk conditions, while also utilizing services such as in-home care, personal assistants, paratransit, and others that limit their ability to social distance, increases exposure, and places them at greater risk of serious illness related to COVID-19,” said John S. Herring, Sr., executive director of the Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living.
But with the expansion of who is eligible to receive the vaccine, Pritzker noted his frustrations with how difficult it has been for those already qualified to make an appointment to get a shot due to low supplies.
“This is extraordinarily frustrating for all of us,” Pritzker said.
In fact it is that exact reasoning that Cook County and Chicago say they are not expanding who is eligible for the vaccine.
“If we add additional people right now to (the current phase of vaccines), all we do is make it harder for the people who are already eligible to get that vaccine,” Chicago’s public health commissioner, Dr. Allison Arwady, told reporters after Pritzker’s announcement. “It would make it harder for us to get it to the people over 65, it would make it harder for us to get it into the hardest hit communities because it just dilutes the amount that’s available.”
In their joint statement, Lightfoot and Preckwinkle estimate more than a million people with disabilities or comorbidities would be added to the current list of eligible residents if they followed the state’s lead.
“The result would be that those currently eligible, including seniors, frontline essential workers and those in our most heavily COVID-burdened communities, would have an even harder time getting a vaccine,” they wrote. “We recognize the Governor must make tough choices and consider needs across this diverse state, but given the limited supply of vaccine, we must also make the tough choices as the leaders of the most populous city and county in the state. We look forward to expanding eligibility as vaccine supply improves.”
Arwady said it may be appropriate for the state to accelerate vaccines to more people if it has more vaccine supply, but that is not the case in the city. She still expects Chicago will be ready to expand its vaccine eligibility at the end of March.
“We’ve only gotten enough vaccine to do five to 10% of all of the people who are already eligible,” she said.
Arwady estimated adding people with disabilities and with comorbidities would double the number of Chicago residents eligible to get the vaccine in the current phase. It’s not immediately clear how many more residents outside the city will be eligible for the vaccine under Pritzker’s new announcement.
Rush University Medical Center on the city’s West Side said it does have capacity to start vaccinating more people, but can’t do so without increased supply.
“We applaud the expansion, but only if supply grows. Otherwise, it will frustrate more people than it will help,” a spokesperson said.
Pritzker did say Wednesday morning that after imploring with President Biden’s administration, Illinois will be receiving 5% more vaccines each week starting this week. He also expressed optimism that a federal community health center vaccine program targeting the hardest hit populations would accelerate the number of people getting vaccinated.
The expanded eligibility for the vaccine would come just one day before the scheduled Food and Drug Administration review of the vaccine from Johnson & Johnson. If it’s authorized for emergency use, the governor said, Johnson & Johnson has promised distributing 100 million doses to the country of the vaccine by July.
“We all have to exercise patience as more vaccine is still being produced,” Pritzker said.
The list of comorbidities qualifying an individual for the vaccine starting Feb. 25 are:
- Chronic Kidney Disease
- COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)
- Heart Condition
- Immunocompromised State from a Solid Organ Transplant
- Pulmonary Disease
- Sickle Cell Disease
That list may be amended later.
Meanwhile, the spread of COVID-19 continues to decline. As of Tuesday, the statewide seven-day positivity rate of the virus stood at 3.3% — the lowest it’s been since July. The state is also recording an average of 55,455 people are getting vaccinated each day.
WBEZ reporters Becky Vevea and Mariah Woelfel contributed to this story.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.