The Cook County Health Department is to begin administering the COVID-19 vaccine to the next tier of eligible residents on Monday, Jan. 25.
It marks an important step in the vaccination’s rollout, one that seeks to inoculate a large swath of essential workers, such as educators and police officers, and general-population senior citizens.
But despite the rollout advancement, many of the next phase’s qualifying individuals do not know how and when they will receive the vaccine.
The county’s “overarching strategy” calls for healthcare professionals within the community to administer the vaccine. It has distributed doses of the vaccine to 91 sites, including 40 Walgreens locations, health centers and more.
After about six weeks of distribution, however, the county characterized its vaccine supply as “extremely limited” and has yet to open an online signup portal for the 600,000 residents eligible in Phase 1b. Additionally, there are still un-vaccinated frontline workers and long-term care residents from Phase 1a.
Well aware of the rollout complications, local officials are not standing pat. Instead, they are suggesting solutions to aid in distribution, and two local strategies are making headway.
Paramedics to the rescue
One concern with the current rollout structure is the lack of mass-vaccination centers.
Individuals are responsible for identifying if they are eligible, finding vaccination locations and planning visits, whether to their physician or a designated pharmacy.
A cohort of area communities has another idea: Allow qualified paramedics to administer the vaccinations in their communities.
“The village is wanting and willing to devote substantial resources to effectuate the vaccination rollout,” said Michael Braiman, the village manager of Wilmette. “We just need to be given the opportunity to do so.”
Briaman, officials from three other municipalities (Winnetka, Northfield and Lincolnwood) and representatives of two emergency-response groups signed a letter to Cook County that details a plan to provide dozens of already-authorized area paramedics with vaccine doses to help expedite inoculations across the community.
According to the letter, the vaccines could be administered in local fire stations and municipal buildings, and the paramedics could also travel to local schools and to the homes of high-risk individuals.
“Right now the onus has been placed on individuals in Phases 1B and C to seek out the vaccine themselves,” the letter reads. “ We are volunteering to take on that responsibility as best we can to directly reach our most vulnerable residents and ensure as many individuals as possible in Phases 1B and 1C are vaccinated.”
The fire departments covering the four communities attached to the letter share a common resource hospital: Evanston’s St. Francis Hospital, which was responsible for training and authorizing the towns’ paramedics and will be responsible for housing and distributing the vaccine locally.
Braiman is optimistic the county accepts the proposal and allows Wilmette and its co-signers to test the plan, which he believes has the potential to be utilized across the state and possibly the country.
“Together we can mobilize an army of authorized paramedics to assist with the vaccination process substantially accelerating the rollout of the vaccination plan,” the letter says.
Collaboration is also happening in the local education sector.
New Trier Township’s seven public school districts are working together on a vaccine distribution plan that centers on the high school’s Northfield campus, an idea previously reported by The Record.
“We are in frequent contact with leadership at the Cook County Department of Public Health waiting clearance, along with vaccine doses, to execute the plan,” said Catherine Wang, Glencoe District 35 superintendent, in an email to The Record.
Some school employees — such as school nurses, speech pathologists and physical therapists — were part of the initial phase of inoculations.
While waiting for more guidance and approval from the state, school districts such as Glencoe 35 and New Trier 203 are encouraging staff members eligible in Phase 1b to seek a vaccination on their own if they can.
Many educators in suburban Cook County live outside of it — in less-populous counties such as DuPage or Lake where it may be simpler to get the vaccine.
Wang said she hopes the district can coordinate staff vaccinations in some capacity by February, while Winnetka District 36 said in a letter to parents it is “cautiously optimistic” it can do the same prior to spring break, which is at the end of March.
Whether New Trier’s Northfield campus will be a mass-vaccination site is undecided, but New Trier’s Director of Communications Niki Dizon said the district speaks with the county “several times a week.”
Vaccine: Where are we now
As of Jan. 18, 66,715 suburban county residents, or 2.9 percent of the county’s population, received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Eligible in Phase 1b is anyone age 65 and older and essential workers, defined as first responders, corrections workers, U.S. Postal workers, public transit workers, grocery store employees, and those in education, manufacturing, and food and agriculture.
Phase 1c includes those aged 16-64 with “high-risk conditions” and essential workers not in Phase 1b. After that is Phase 2, which includes anyone above 16 years old who was not eligible in Phase 1.