Lightfoot Cuts Off Loretto Hospital After Vaccinations For Ineligible ‘Well-Connected’ People

Loretto Hospital CEO George Miller
Loretto Hospital CEO George Miller discusses health inequalities among different ethnic groups during a press conference about the COVID-19 vaccinations at Norwegian American Hospital in Chicago on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. Youngrae Kim, Chicago Tribune / Associated Press
Loretto Hospital CEO George Miller
Loretto Hospital CEO George Miller discusses health inequalities among different ethnic groups during a press conference about the COVID-19 vaccinations at Norwegian American Hospital in Chicago on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. Youngrae Kim, Chicago Tribune / Associated Press

Lightfoot Cuts Off Loretto Hospital After Vaccinations For Ineligible ‘Well-Connected’ People

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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration cut off the flow of COVID-19 vaccines to the West Side’s Loretto Hospital on Thursday, hours after hospital administrators admitted for the second time this week that they made “mistakes” in allowing people who were not eligible yet to have access to vaccines.

Loretto admitted Thursday it made a mistake — its second admission in a week — after WBEZ reported that 13 Cook County Circuit Court judges were given the opportunity to get coronavirus vaccines at the hospital in the Austin neighborhood on March 8.

It followed Loretto’s mea culpa after Block Club Chicago first revealed that the health care provider wrongly gave COVID-19 vaccines to workers at the Trump Tower in downtown Chicago, far from the hospital that serves mostly Black and low-income patients on the West Side.

The hospital promised to prevent a repeat of those scenarios, but it was apparently too late to avert the city’s dramatic response to the alleged favoritism in vaccinations by Loretto.

In a statement, Lightfoot cited recent “stories” about health care providers who “allowed well-connected individuals to jump the line to receive the vaccine, instead of using it to service people who were more in need.”

“Our city will not tolerate providers who blatantly disregard the Chicago Department of Public Health’s distribution guidelines for the COVID-19 vaccine,” Lightfoot said, threatening similar action against other providers who are caught not following the rules.

And administration officials said Loretto can give second and final doses of the vaccine to those who received their first shot there — but the hospital will not get any first doses from the city next week and “until we can confirm their vaccination strategies and reporting practices meet all [city health department] requirements.”

As with the Trump Tower vaccinations, Loretto at first defended giving a chance at vaccination to the judges — as well as their spouses or another “second person” of each judge’s choice, according to an email obtained by WBEZ.

On Thursday, though, Loretto’s president and CEO, George Miller, issued a statement erroneously claiming that judges were allowed to get vaccines under a section of phase 1b in the city of Chicago’s “vaccination plan,” which allows for shots to go now to city elected officials.

In fact, city Public Health Department officials confirmed that the ongoing phase 1b does not include judges. Being a judge alone will not make someone eligible for COVID-19 shots until the next phase, which begins March 29.

In a statement Thursday, the hospital said it had misconstrued the city’s guidelines and promised it would do its best to not repeat its mistakes in the Trump Tower and judicial vaccinations.

The city’s current vaccination group, 1b, covers people age 65 and over and “frontline essential workers” such as teachers, firefighters and public transit agency employees.

“I can only apologize for the misstatement yesterday, as it was indicative of an existing level of confusion among medical teams at Loretto and other facilities regarding the nuances and differences between the city and state’s 1b and 1b+ eligibility requirements,” a spokeswoman for the hospital told WBEZ on Thursday. “That is not an excuse for mistakes made.”

The spokeswoman, Bonni Pear, also said the chief executive and other hospital leaders are working with Democratic state Rep. LaShawn Ford — whose district includes Loretto and who’s on the hospital board of trustees — to “step up control measures to ensure strict adherence” to the city’s vaccination plan and “avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.”

Ford has criticized Loretto for the vaccination offers to both the Trump Tower workers and the judges. But on Thursday, he said Lightfoot’s move represented “cutting off our nose to spite our face.”

“The city should investigate the actions at the Loretto Hospital but the community shouldn’t be cut off during the pandemic,” Ford told WBEZ. “The need is great and progress is being made in the work of the Loretto Hospital. There can be clear directions from the city but the city shouldn’t lose the momentum.”

That sentiment was echoed Thursday night by the powerful SEIU Healthcare Illinois labor union, which represents some workers at Loretto.

“We strongly object the decision by the Chicago Department of Public Health to withhold vaccine doses from a safety net serving high-risk and underserved, majority black and brown communities,” union President Greg Kelley said in a statement.

Kelley pointed out that Loretto has been involved in the city’s Protect Chicago Plus program, aimed at vaccinating the city’s Black and Latino residents who were hardest hit by the pandemic.

“Workers at Loretto have already sacrificed enough in their frontline roles at a safety net hospital in the high-needs Austin community during a pandemic. It’s crucial that the Board limit their corrective action to the two individuals responsible for this lapse in judgment—and not punish workers and the community they serve.”

In December, 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.

The mayor’s drastic response to Loretto’s favoritism in vaccine distribution came at a moment when many people who are already eligible to be vaccinated are struggling to secure appointments for the shots due to enormous demand and a limited supply of doses.

This all comes too as the state said this week it intends to open up vaccinations to everyone age 16 and older in less than a month, eliminating tiers of eligible groups. But Chicago has held fast to its rules of first vaccinating people most at risk — including the elderly, frontline workers and people in communities disproportionately hit by COVID- 19 — before opening up appointments widely.

In the March 8 email obtained by WBEZ, Diann Marsalek — the acting presiding judge in the county court system’s traffic division — invited 13 other judges to book appointments at Loretto for themselves, their spouses or another person they wanted to bring for shots of the Pfizer vaccine.

The 13 judges who were sent the email invitation from Marsalek were: William Sullivan, Susanne Groebner, Celia Gamrath, Michael Hogan, Athanasios Sianis, Krista Butler, Cara Smith, Daniel Tiernan, Lindsay Huge, Lynn Weaver Boyle, Patricia Sheahan, Clare Quish and Joe Panarese.

It’s unclear if any of them got the shots through that offer or brought others with them for vaccines at Loretto. WBEZ sent messages to all 13 judges and none of them would comment. Loretto’s CEO, Miller, said federal health privacy law prevented him from discussing specific cases.

Another judge told WBEZ he was vaccinated at Loretto last month even though he’s only 61 years old and was originally told by the hospital that he was not eligible to get his shots there.

Since the onset of the pandemic a year ago, judges have mostly worked online. Judges have presided over nearly 1.5 million hours of court proceedings on Zoom in the last year, officials said.

The spokeswoman for Timothy Evans, the chief judge of the circuit court system, has defended the vaccinations of judges and their spouses, saying the doses that went to them would have gone to waste otherwise. The hospital never made any such assertion.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Cook County reporter Kristen Schorsch contributed information to this story.