Victoria Aquin saw the headlines, as did her elderly mother, a resident of Riverside for 62 years. On Jan. 25 at noon, Illinois had entered Phase 1B of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and some 600,000 people in suburban Cook County could begin making appointments to receive the precious shots – the way back to normal for which they’d waited nearly a year.
Like many older senior citizens, Aquin’s mom does not have home internet, nor does she own a smartphone. Her landline is her connection to the outside world. And no one was answering the phone on Jan. 25 when Aquin repeatedly called Cook County’s vaccine hotline number.
“I finally got put on hold at 7:01 p.m.,” Aquin said. “When I was able to talk to someone they told me there were no more appointments and that if I called tomorrow maybe they might have something.”
Aquin’s experience was a common one. Martha Almgauer, who works as a customer service relations clerk for the village of North Riverside was seeing the situation from both sides of the coin.
Along with her fellow employees at the North Riverside Village Commons, she has been fielding dozens of calls from senior citizens and caregivers looking for advice on how they might score a vaccine appointment while simultaneously trying to nail appointments down for her two elderly parents.
“It’s been a tough situation,” said Almgauer, who registered her parents through the county’s vaccine appointment website at vaccine.cookcountyil.gov and awaits further notification from the county on when new appointments will come available.
“You wish you could do more,” said Almgauer, who advises callers to check with their physicians to see if perhaps they might be able to receive vaccines that way. “Right now everybody is trying to get it.”
Riverside Township Supervisor Vera Wilt has also been fielding calls from township residents, and she’s also been trying to get a vaccine appointment for herself, since she qualifies for one as someone who is at least 65 years old.
“I am seeing a lot of frustration,” Wilt said. “I personally did register with the county, but I haven’t had any luck myself.”
Illinois ranked 47th nationally
Those frustrations played out amid continued criticism late last week of the slow rollout of the state’s vaccine effort.
The state on Jan. 29 reported 58,357 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were administered over the previous 24 hours, setting a one-day high mark for the third straight day.
Still, only 26.4 percent of the 496,100 doses distributed to the federal Pharmacy Partnership Program have been administered to residents of long-term care facilities through nationwide pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker has faced criticism for the slow rollout of the vaccine to long-term care residents. Pritzker said Thursday that he had spoken to leaders from Walgreens and CVS, and said the companies plan to have the first round of vaccinations at assisted living and long-term care facilities complete by Feb. 15.
Employees and residents at both long-term care facilities in the Landmark’s coverage area, Cantata Adult Life Services in Brookfield and Caledonia Senior Living and Memory Care in North Riverside, have already been administered both doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
On Jan. 28, Illinois Senate Republicans sent a letter to the governor requesting a “clear explanation” as to why Illinois ranked near the bottom of states – as of Friday it was 47th of 50 – in percentage of population that has received at least one dose of the vaccine. That was according to the New York Times, which showed only 5.1 percent of Illinoisans had received one dose of the vaccine as of Friday.
Pritzker responded to the lawmakers in a letter, noting his administration made $25 million in grants available to beef up staff, training and rental space at the state’s 97 local health departments through which it is coordinating the vaccination plan.
“In fact, as we have helped local health departments overcome their challenges, the state of Illinois is administering more doses a week than it is receiving from the federal government,” Pritzker wrote in his response letter.
Pritzker said the New York Times showed Illinois was seventh in the nation for total number of doses distributed, which was right beside California, Texas, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania – states cited in the GOP letter.
“All but one of those states has received more vaccine on a per capita basis than Illinois has at the CDC’s last count – and yet, we have kept up with them despite having less to work with,” he said.
National supply ‘completely inadequate’
While the Republican lawmakers criticized Pritzker for “blaming the previous president, the federal government and CVS/Walgreens,” Pritzker said “having a partner” in the Biden administration will ensure a quicker rollout.
He pointed to an announcement Jan. 28 that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide Illinois with an additional $43 million to “expand our mobile vaccination operations and offer more easy-access locations for our residents as the national vaccine supply increases.” He also cited President Joe Biden’s plan to secure 200 million additional vaccine doses.
“Of course, as I and governors across the political spectrum have made clear, the current national vaccine supply pipeline is completely inadequate for national demand – a product of the previous presidential administration, whether or not you’d like to name it as such,” the governor wrote to the GOP lawmakers. “In a country of 330 million, the CDC estimates that only enough doses to fully vaccinate about 23 million people have even gone out the door – and that doesn’t count delays in administration or reporting.”
In total, the state has received slightly more than 1.8 million doses of the vaccines manufactured by either Pfizer or Moderna, with about 1.3 million distributed outside of the long-term care partnership program.
Of those outside of the partnership program, 59 percent, or 756,444, have been reported administered. Vaccine administrators have three days from when the shot is given to report it.
The vaccination rollout continues amid falling positivity rates. On Jan. 29, the state’s rolling seven-day average case positivity rate was 4.3 percent, marking the 21st straight day it had decreased and the lowest it has been since Oct. 12.
But, that has not made the difficulty of obtaining appointments for vaccines any less frustrating for local senior citizens and their family members and caregivers, on whom they rely to navigate the process.
“The frustration is that they’re letting elderly people know they’re going to get this, but everyone makes it seem like it’s going to be this week,” Aquin said. “What do elderly people have to do if they don’t have someone to call for them?”
Cook County officials renewed their calls for patience with the rollout, saying the vaccine supply is simply not enough to meet the immediate demand.
“As the governor, [Cook County Board] President Preckwinkle and others have explained, vaccination appointments will become available as additional doses are received,” said Kate Hedlin, communications manager for Cook County Health, said in an email. “In suburban Cook County, there are approximately 600,000 residents and essential workers eligible to be vaccinated in Phase 1B of the vaccination plan, which means not everyone will be able to get vaccinated immediately.
“We ask for patience and please know that we are committed to getting residents vaccinated. In addition, Walgreens, Mariano’s and Jewel-Osco are also offering vaccinations.”
An updated list of COVID-19 vaccination sites can be found at coronavirus.illinois.gov/s/vaccination-location.
Jerry Nowicki of Capitol News Illinois contributed to this report.