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What Has Illinois Done Wrong In Its Vaccine Rollout? Lawmakers Question State Officials

A nurse holds a needle with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at HSHS St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in O’Fallon, Illinois.
File Photo / Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
A nurse holds a needle with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at HSHS St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in O’Fallon, Illinois. The state ranked among the worst in the country in vaccine distribution early into the rollout.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

So many arms, so few doses. That’s the main takeaway from Thursday’s state Senate hearing on Illinois’ vaccine rollout and its shortfalls.

Lawmakers criticized inconsistencies in the program. But the biggest problem is that there aren’t enough doses available to vaccinate people in the earliest phases of the state’s plan.

The state receives roughly 280,000 vaccines per week, nowhere near Illinois’ ability to administer up to 900,000 per week, said Andrew Friend, deputy director of the preparedness and response office for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

“We have a lot of capability, a lot of capacity, but not a lot of vaccine,” Friend said.

Even as Illinois expands eligibility, the state has yet to complete vaccinating people in the first phases. For instance, Illinois has nearly 2 million residents over 65 and only 500,000 have been vaccinated, said IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike. There are more than 4 million people eligible in the current phases, Phases 1A and 1B, and only 1.5 million doses had been administered as of Thursday afternoon.

It could still be months before the state gets to all those in the early phases, Ezike said. But the state also focuses on helping local health departments use all the vaccines they have on hand rather than have them sitting around in a freezer, Friend said. Vaccinating as many people as possible will help prevent the spread of new and potentially more dangerous COVID-19 variants.

With help from the Illinois National Guard, mass vaccination and mobile sites have drastically increased the state’s ability to give shots.

Here are some of the questions lawmakers asked and answers from health officials during the Senate Health Committee hearing.

Why was Illinois ranked so low on per capita vaccine distribution?

Illinois was among the worst states in vaccine distribution, The New York Times reported. Friend said the state lagged because it decided to stay in its first phase longer before expanding eligibility.

The state has since improved to where it is distributing doses faster than they arrive from the federal government, he said.

Between the possible approval later this month of a Johnson & Johnson vaccine and President Joe Biden’s decision to invoke the Defense Production Act to ramp up production, Friend said he expects to see increased production.

State Sen. Jason Plummer, a Republican from Edwardsville, said IDPH officials didn’t address all of his concerns about transparency during the hearing.

“The Pritzker Administration and its representatives have yet again refused to prioritize the people of this state by refusing to answer the numerous questions that remain regarding the failures of Illinois’ COVID-19 vaccination rollout,” he said.

State Sen. Julie Morrison, chair of the Senate Health Committee, said she plans to call another hearing in a few weeks.

Why can’t local health departments plan better for how many vaccines they’ll have?

Prior to Biden taking office, states received last-minute notice of the doses they’d receive each week, making it difficult to share information with local health departments.

Those local agencies for now are some of the only places people can book appointments as hospitals and pharmacies await doses directly from the federal government and build up their infrastructure. In order for health departments to use doses effectively, they need to be able to plan in advance.

Biden promised in January his administration would give states a three-week forecast of the minimum amount of doses they could expect. Using that information, Illinois started sending forecasts to local health departments statewide Thursday, Ezike said.

State Sen. John Curran, a Republican from the Chicago suburb Woodridge, complained that those forecasts weren’t available for public review. IDPH provides information online about each county’s vaccine inventory, but the site doesn’t specify how much each county received per week and its available data could be delayed by as much as 72 hours.

John Wagner, Monroe County Health Department administrator, agreed with Curran.

“There’s not a fair distribution of vaccine across the state,” Wagner said. “I would really like to see IDPH post their weekly allocation of vaccine. Certain areas are getting far more than other areas. Some areas are finishing 1B, getting down to 65, and I’m still on my 75-plus-year-olds.”

How does the state decide how many vaccines to send where each week?

Illinois distributes vaccines based on county population, the impact of the virus and with an “equity-centric” lens. But Curran said it needed to be clearer how the state was taking equity into consideration.

Black and Brown Illinoisans are more likely to become seriously ill or die from COVID-19, according to IDPH. The equity approach will also focus on people who live in rural communities with limited access to internet or transportation, Friend said, adding that he would take Curran’s suggestion back to his team.

Can a local health department make its own rules?

Yes. A health department can decide to follow the state’s guidelines or it can choose to move more slowly through the phases. For instance, St. Clair County at first decided that in addition to those in Phase 1A, it would only allow people 75 and older to receive the vaccine. Slowing the phases limits the amount of people demanding or expecting an appointment and also allows departments to focus on at-risk populations.

The city of Chicago, meanwhile, receives shipments directly from the federal government. The city can use those direct shipments as health officials choose. They decided not to expand eligibility to people with disabilities and high-risk health conditions on Feb. 25, as recommended by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, because they were still working on the initial phases.

Are people in previous phases still eligible?

Yes. Vaccine providers should still prioritize people in the first phases, even if those individuals didn’t want to get the vaccine at first and changed their minds.

Why are inmates being vaccinated at the same time as the elderly and others?

State health officials say jails and prisons are hotspots for the virus that can seep into the community.

Republican lawmakers expressed frustration during the hearing that incarcerated people might get the vaccine before other priority groups. The virus spreads rapidly in group living settings such as prisons and nursing homes, and it affects employees as much as it does people living there. Health officials say employees not only suffer from the virus themselves, but can spread the virus in the community. Corrections workers were eligible under Phase 1B.

The state will start vaccinating employees and inmates Tuesday at the East Moline Correctional Center and will expand the program to other locations later next week, Friend said. The Illinois National Guard will assist.

State Sen. Terri Bryant, a Republican from Murphysboro, said she would liked to have seen more detailed information from the governor’s office on “why he prioritized inmates over more vulnerable people with comorbidities.”

Vaccinating inmates as well as employees is sound public health policy, said Democratic state Sen. Robert Peters of Chicago, because even people who have been vaccinated could still carry and spread the disease.

When will we know more about vaccine rollout in Black and Brown communities?

IDPH wants to release data about the vaccine rollout in communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, Friend said. The information should include details similar to those available for coronavirus cases and deaths in those areas, he added. He did not provide a timeline for when the data would be available.

Kelsey Landis is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Kelsey Landis is an Illinois state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.