With Urgency Mounting, Chicago Hospitals Race To Vaccinate Staff And Push To Move On To Others

COVID-19 Vaccine Illinois
A vial of COVID-19 vaccine at Elmhurst Hospital, on December 12, 2020. Hospitals are racing to vaccinate staff so Chicago can move on to the next priority groups. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
COVID-19 Vaccine Illinois
A vial of COVID-19 vaccine at Elmhurst Hospital, on December 12, 2020. Hospitals are racing to vaccinate staff so Chicago can move on to the next priority groups. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

With Urgency Mounting, Chicago Hospitals Race To Vaccinate Staff And Push To Move On To Others

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With a growing sense of urgency, Chicago hospital leaders met Wednesday with Mayor Lori Lightfoot to strategize how to more quickly vaccinate health care workers so they can move on to immunizing patients.

With the spread of COVID-19 showing little signs of slowing — Illinois surpassed more than 1 million cases of the novel coronavirus on Thursday — hospitals are trying to both convince their own workers to take the shot, while looking toward the next potential groups they could vaccinate more quickly.

Early data suggest roughly a quarter of people eligible to get the vaccine first in the city have gotten it so far. This group includes health care workers and people living and working in nursing homes.

Even so, some hospitals with extra doses are eager to get permission from Chicago public health leaders to move on from their workers and start vaccinating others, including patients. This comes as health officials in Illinois continue to watch for the spread of a new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19, which is more contagious and spreads more quickly.

“The point is never to have any doses in the freezer,” said Dr. William Parker, who treats COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit at the University of Chicago Medical Center in Hyde Park on the South Side. “We need to get needles in arms. … There should be an urgency about this that’s not present.”

But the federal government has provided specific guidance on who should be vaccinated first, and Chicago leaders say they are sticking to those guidelines.

“We have a great number of unaffiliated health care personnel that need the opportunity to be vaccinated before we move into [the next] phase,” said Dr. Candice Robinson, medical director of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Unaffiliated health care personnel include those who don’t work for big hospitals, such as independent dentists and doctors in private practice.

These workers don’t have as much access to the vaccine than providers who work for hospitals do, which could explain some of the lagging vaccination numbers.

The push to vaccinate workers

Many hospitals received their first doses in December and have been hustling to immunize their health care workers. But they’re facing some hesitancy, even from those who are treating COVID-19 patients. The vaccine is new, after all. And Black Americans in particular have haunting memories of being a part of medical experiments.

“Less than 20% on our initial survey [of employees] indicated they would take the vaccine,” said Alfred Bolden, chief nurse executive at South Shore Hospital on the Southeast Side. “It hasn’t changed significantly.”

The majority of South Shore’s employees are Black, mirroring its patient population. And during the pandemic, Black and Latino residents have been disproportionately hit hardest by the coronavirus.

“I’m really hopeful that every health care worker [will get vaccinated],” said Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady. “Maybe they didn’t decide to take the vaccine right at the beginning. Maybe they wanted to wait and see some of their coworkers get it.”

At Loretto Hospital in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side, a little over half of the roughly 600 employees have received a vaccine, from doctors and nurses to administrative staff and janitors. The latter employees qualify, too. The number of people who have gotten vaccinated is a lot better than the only 40 to 50 workers who through an initial survey said they would get a shot, said Afya Khan, director of Loretto’s infection control department.

Loretto received more vaccine that the hospital needed for its workers. So now, the hospital must wait to learn when and how it can use its extra doses sitting in an ultra cold freezer.

“We want to turn our huge tent into a vaccination clinic,” Khan said.

Now the tent outside the hospital is used for COVID-19 testing.

But Robinson said the city will not move on to the next group, until demand slows, supply increases or a higher percentage of people in the first priority group get shots.

Early data shows about 42,652 city residents have gotten their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, despite the city being shipped more than 125,000 doses from Moderna and Pfizer, the two companies currently authorized to distribute COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use. Another 10,241 non-Chicago residents were also vaccinated in the city, officials say.

The number of vaccines given includes both health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities in Chicago. According to the state, there are 162,000 health care workers in Chicago and nearly 16,000 people in long-term care facilities. This means about 24% of the people who live in the city and are classified in the first priority group have rolled up their sleeves for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Calls for more vaccine

Lightfoot has called for an exponential increase in the amount of vaccine being shipped. Earlier this week, she said if the city continues at the current pace, it would take a year and a half to vaccinate all Chicagoans.

But the current pace will not likely remain as it is. Two additional vaccines, one from Johnson & Johnson and another from AstraZeneca, could soon be approved for emergency use, which would help boost supply.

On Thursday, Gov. JB Pritzker joined other governors in also calling for the federal government to release more vaccines, saying they believed the feds have withheld doses for no apparent reason.

In the meantime, some hospitals big and small aren’t seeing the type of excitement displayed among the first health care workers who were vaccinated, many of whom shared on social media photos and videos of their experience and Band-Aids covering their injection sites.

At AMITA Health, one of the biggest hospital systems in Illinois, a little less than 50% of their employees have received a shot. They’re expecting more soon, some of whom said they wanted to wait a bit, said Dr. Michael Kelleher, who runs the health system’s COVID-19 vaccine steering committee.

As of Jan. 6, Advocate Aurora, another giant hospital system, had administered the vaccine to about 1,800 of the roughly 5,000 employees at the system’s two hospitals in Chicago, according to spokesperson Adam Mesirow.

About half of Norwegian American Hospital’s employees and others who qualified for a shot have taken one.

But there remains some hesitation, said Dr. Abha Agrawal, chief medical officer at the hospital in Humboldt Park on the West Side. Even among groups in the “line of fire,” she said, such as respiratory therapists.

“The highest risk count of COVID comes from stuff that involves your airways,” Agrawal said. Yet, “We have had a relatively higher, ‘I want to wait. I’m not so sure.’”

She noted that a majority of the employees are people of color. So, Norwegian is reaching out to employees to drum up support for the vaccine, with Spanish-speaking and Black physicians in particular delivering the message.

“Who is giving the message does matter, and we want people to get vaccinated,” Agrawal said.

The COVID-19 vaccines are not mandatory, and employers cannot require it while it’s still approved only for emergency use.

Meeting with the mayor

Lightfoot’s meeting Wednesday included leaders of several prominent local hospitals and health systems, WBEZ confirmed.

Dr. Stephen Weber, chief medical officer at U of C’s medical center, said he attended. Of those offered shots, about 60% of people have taken one at the research-focused hospital, which is the biggest medical center by far on the South Side. Typically there is no vaccine left. That’s the goal, Weber said.

The meeting “created a really positive environment that acknowledged this work is hard,” Weber said.

There were no mandates. But some of the conversation involved better collaboration between hospitals and the Chicago Department of Public Health, to vaccinate more health care workers faster, to more quickly get to patients. The next groups of people who will be prioritized to be vaccinated are the elderly and frontline essential workers, such as teachers and grocery store baggers.

There are some extra hoops to jump through now. For example, when a solo practitioner contacts a hospital asking for a vaccine, the hospital then calls the city to make sure that’s OK.

Weber said U of C plans to reach out to providers on the South Side who don’t have easy access to the COVID-19 vaccine, like physical therapists or small doctors groups, to come get a shot.

Dr. Paul Casey, chief medical officer at Rush University Medical Center on the Near West Side, said the big hospital has been helping other organizations get vaccinated as they reach out to Rush. What would be great, Casey said, is to have a list of providers who need a shot, and coordinate which hospital they could get one at.

“This is really the key to being able to get back to our regular life,” Casey said. “The minute we get vaccine, we want to be able to get it into people’s arms.”

Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Becky Vevea covers Chicago politics on WBEZ’s government and politics desk. Follow them @kschorsch and @beckyvevea.