Chicago will soon see a long-awaited boost in the number of COVID-19 vaccines arriving each week.
The federal government announced Friday it would not only open a mass vaccination site, operated by the Federal Emergency Management Association, at the United Center, but it will also provide special shipments of vaccine to the site.
The United Center vaccination site will open March 10 and is expected to vaccinate up to 6,000 people every day. The estimate also indicates the number of doses being shipped to Chicago each week could nearly double. The site will allow anyone in the state eligible to be vaccinated to sign up.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker said there will be an advance sign-up period specifically for people 65 and older so they have “exclusive early access to the first batch of vaccination appointments” at the United Center. More details about that will be announced in the coming days. (Update, 3-2: Here’s how booking appointments will work.)
“Someday, not too far from now, we’ll be at the United Center not for a life saving shot, but for a game winning shot,” Pritzker said.
Local elected officials celebrated the news, calling it a “game changer” in bringing the pandemic to an end.
“This new mass community vaccination center is an important step in our efforts to overcome this pandemic, and it will help get shots in the arms of Illinoisans at a much higher rate, especially in the communities hit hardest by COVID-19,” U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth said in a statement.
The vaccine rollout in Chicago and across the country has been slower than many hoped. President Joe Biden vowed to ramp up to 100 million vaccinations by the 100th day of his administration.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and local public health officials have blamed the slow rollout on the low amount of vaccines shipping each week. The city has been getting about 40,000 doses each week from Pfizer and Moderna, the two companies with authorized COVID-19 vaccines. Last week, the shipment jumped to over 50,000, but it’s still not enough to ensure the millions of people who are currently eligible can get appointments.
It’s not clear exactly how many doses will be shipped to the United Center each week, but if the site is expected to give 6,000 people shots each day, that would mean roughly 40,000 doses would have to arrive each week.
Lightfoot emphasized the need to vaccinate seniors more quickly, noting the city still has 250,000 of the estimated 363,000 people 65 and older that need to get their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
“We want to get those seniors vaccinated as fast as humanly possible,” Lightfoot said.
Earlier this month, Pritzker said the state could start vaccinating people ages 16 to 64 with underlying conditions on February 25. Those people are part of the 1C priority group, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control.
But Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said they would not move on to 1C until late March.
The disconnect now sets up an odd situation where people younger than 65 with underlying conditions will now be allowed to get inoculated at the United Center, even though Chicago and suburban Cook County sites remain open only to health care workers, frontline essential workers, and people over age 65.
The city has said they plan to open appointments up to 1C on March 29. The Centers for Disease Control defines that group as not only people 16 to 64 with underlying conditions, but also other essential workers.
Becky Vevea is covering the vaccine rollout and City Hall for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.