Starting Monday, an additional 650,000 Chicagoans and another 2.5 million Illinoisans become eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
It will take months for all the people at least 65 years old and frontline essential workers in this next group to get appointments. But there’s not enough doses for everyone to line up all at once.
And there’s still a lot of confusion over how to get in line.
Here’s what we know so far about how the next phase of COVID-19 vaccinations will go in Chicago.
Be prepared to wait, even if you’re in the next priority group
For the last two months, about 850,000 people were eligible to roll up their sleeves for a COVID-19 vaccine across the state. The first group included health care workers and people who live and work in nursing homes. That number jumps to 4 million on Monday statewide when the elderly and certain frontline essential workers become eligible.
But the number of doses being shipped each week by vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna will not increase for a while.
“We are hearing that we are not likely to see significant increases in how much vaccine is shipped for probably at least three weeks,” said Chicago’s Commissioner of Public Health Dr. Allison Arwady.
Chicago is getting about 34,000 doses weekly and Illinois is getting about 126,000 doses each week.
“My main word for you is patience,” Arwady said Thursday after getting her second dose at Truman College in Uptown. “I know patience is hard, especially when you’re seeing people get the vaccine. But it’s exciting. Every shot that goes into the arm here is one step closer to Chicago, getting past COVID.”
How do I get an appointment? If you have a doctor, start there
First off, you haven’t missed the big sign-up. There is no mass vaccination sign-up list in Chicago yet, no one-stop-shop to register for an appointment. If you live in the Chicago suburbs, the following counties do have sign-ups for residents: suburban Cook, Lake, DuPage, Kane, Will and McHenry.
Instead, Chicago has a decentralized system with hospitals, clinics and pharmacies largely the ones getting doses, setting up appointments and administering vaccines. In fact, some large health systems have already begun reaching out to elderly patients to schedule their vaccinations.
Starting Jan. 25, hospitals, clinics and pharmacies that are already vaccinating people get the green light to move on to anyone who qualifies in the next priority group, often called 1b.
That group includes: people 65 and older, those in homeless shelters and jails, grocery store staff, factory workers, day care providers, teachers, police officers, transit workers, people employed in manufacturing, postal workers and people who work in local government.
Even within this large group, Chicago public health officials are asking doctors to prioritize people within 1b. This effort to subprioritize within the 1b group is driven partly by the fact that the elderly are at highest risk of dying if they contract COVID-19, and these newly-eligible workers not only perform essential services, like delivering mail and driving public buses, but they also can’t work from home. Many of them work at places that have seen some of the most COVID-19 outbreaks.
For example, Chicago’s guidance says people over 75 and the elderly with underlying health conditions should go before generally healthy people between 65 and 74.
But there are no repercussions or ways to really enforce those guidelines. Each individual hospital, clinic and pharmacy will have control over scheduling patients.
“If a teacher or a postal worker or a grocery store worker has an appointment with their doctor, they can get vaccinated,” Arwady said.
What the next few months may look like
Most hospitals, clinics and pharmacies get shipments of vaccines directly from Pfizer and Moderna. But a portion of what’s shipped to Chicago goes directly to the city’s Department of Public Health, which then distributes to smaller clinics, mass vaccination sites and other locations authorized to administer vaccines.
This means, public health officials have some control over where supply goes and when. They can direct it where they think it’s needed most. This will be the main tool the department has to prioritize people within 1b.
On Tuesday, Arwady explained how the city plans to direct vaccines over the next two months. Distribution will happen primarily through employers.
End of January/Beginning of February: The city will direct doses to correctional settings, like jails and prisons, and to first responders, like firefighters and police officers. There is already a city-run private point of dispensing that has been vaccinating paramedics in the 1a group.
February: The Chicago public health department will direct vaccines to grocery store chains and manufacturing facilities. In some cases, there will be “strike teams” who go to those locations to vaccinate workers. Or the employer will be partnered with a nearby clinic, hospital, or pharmacy where workers can go to get shots.
Late February: Doses will go directly to day care centers, Chicago Public Schools and private schools. Again, teams of vaccinators will visit locations, schools will partner with hospitals or clinics. Arwady also said it’s possible school nurses could administer vaccines to other staff.
March: The city will start directing vaccines to the Chicago Transit Authority, other transit workers, the postal service and other government agencies with essential workers.
This rough timeline for 1b will likely change based on how much vaccine is shipped in the coming months, Arwady said. The city has the ability to vaccinate five times as many people as they currently are, she added.
Health care workers, nursing home staff and residents still need shots
There are 850,000 health care workers and nursing home staff and residents across Illinois who have been eligible for vaccines since mid-December. But only about half of them have been vaccinated.
Some health care workers have been hesitant to get the vaccine. Several hospitals told WBEZ that many of their Black and Latino employees have passed on the shot. In Black communities in particular, there’s a history of mistrust and medical experimentation.
Both the city and the state have yet to provide any data on the race and ethnicity of people who have already gotten vaccines. Arwady said Thursday that’s because of a technical glitch. Even when hospitals, clinics and pharmacies are inputting data on race and ethnicity, it is not carrying over to the vaccine tracking system.
“In a lot of cases when the computer system is then talking to the state registry where we keep track of vaccines … 85% of the time that ethnicity data, in particular, is not being transmitted,” Arwady said, noting that her staff have been working to fix the problem and they expect to release that data on Monday.
Even if all 850,000 eligible people under 1a wanted a shot right away, there isn’t enough vaccine to make that happen. And people in the first priority group will continue to be able to make appointments, even as more people join the line.
For this reason, Chicago’s Department of Public Health is not yet ready to open up appointments to the next priority groups at their six mass vaccination sites, Arwady said Thursday. Those sites at City College campuses are by appointment only.
“We still are working through a lot of the home health aides, a lot of the dental offices, the people who provide medical care especially to vulnerable Chicagoans,” Arwady said. “In our [points of dispensing], I think it’s likely to be a couple of weeks — probably into early February — before we have appointments available for seniors.”
Arwady said the city does plan to release more details on Monday about when and how the city will open more appointments to people in the 1b group: elderly and certain essential workers.
Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.