As COVID-19 Vaccinations Begin, Illinois Officials Say Feds Cut Future Shipments by Half

The entirety of Illinois’ initial allotment of coronavirus vaccine has now safely made its way, thanks to state trooper escorts, from the Illinois National Strategic Stockpile to 77 hospitals across the state, as well as to Chicago area hospitals including Naperville’s Edward Hospital, UChicago Medicine, Mt. Sinai, Rush University Medical Center and The New Roseland Community Hospital.

Roseland CEO Tim Egan said the hospital received 975 doses. That’s more than enough for each of its employees and affiliate doctors to get the vaccine, with some to spare.

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Unlike medical facilities prioritizing doctors and nurses, he said the first five employees to get the Pfizer vaccine Thursday at Roseland included an engineer, an environmental services employee and a lab worker.

“We spread it out amongst our family because this battle against COVID isn’t just fought by doctors and nurses, it’s fought by our entire family and that’s our support service lines,” he said. “It’s just a breath of fresh air for the whole vaccination program itself. So we spread the wealth and we got all service lines involved.”

Remaining doses will be distributed to community partners, like ambulance drivers.

“They’re on the front lines. They didn’t’ get any allotment of the vaccine and they certainly are deserving of getting vaccinated as front-line warriors, so we’re going to help them out too,” Egan said.

Egan said the hospital is “running and gunning” to get everyone vaccinated as soon as possible.

Employees will not be mandated to get the vaccine, though he said they are encouraged. Recognizing a skepticism in the Black community about vaccinations, he said Roseland plans to do an educational campaign, as well as an “I Got It” effort in which those who get the vaccine will be given pins to wear.

Rush’s makeshift employee vaccine clinic was bustling on Thursday afternoon. After expecting Pfizer’s shipment to arrive earlier in the week, the vaccine was delivered Wednesday night.

Illinois Hospital Association President A.J. Wilhemi had sent a statement pleading for patience, saying hospitals were “working around the clock … with the shared goal of ensuring COVID-19 vaccines are appropriately administered in a timely manner.”

Wilhelmi said hospitals require lead time to prepare to vaccinate staff. Vaccinations must be made within five days from when the vaccine is thawed before it spoils.

“The 48-hour window of preparation is needed to ensure we can get vaccines into arms as quickly as possible and make sure no vaccine is wasted,” Wilhelmi said, adding that the stakes are too high to rush rollout.

Rush has divided its employees into tiers, with those who interact most frequently and directly with COVID-19 patients in the first tier.

Emergency Dr. Louis Hondros said anywhere from 30 to 70 coronavirus patients visit the Rush emergency department daily, and many are quite sick.

“It’s surreal to think that we’ve been battling this for over a year now,” he said.  Getting the vaccine “feels kind of cathartic. Hopefully this is the beginning of the end. And the more people we can vaccinate … the sooner it will be over.

Hondros said he did his research, reading the Pfizer and Moderna studies, before making an appointment to be inoculated.

Getting a COVID-19 vaccine is also not required for Rush employees.

“It doesn’t penetrate the human cell. The science is pretty straightforward. Is there always a concern? Sure. But I think at this point we all feel that it’s pretty safe to get,” Hondros said.

There’s a chance that hospitals will be able to stretch their rations of the vaccine further than originally expected, now that the FDA has said that vials initially said to contain enough for five doses of vaccine may have enough for six or even seven doses.

“What has to be clear is that any remaining vaccine that is in the vial that does not equal a full dose cannot be combined with remnants from other vials. We don’t want to waste any vaccine but it’s also critical that every individual receives a full, safe and effective dose of vaccine,” Illinois Department of Public Health director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said.

Ezike said there’s no telling how many additional doses may be created from the flexibility of using the extra drug.

But it comes as states, including Illinois, say they're unsure when, and how many, additional shipments will be coming.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday said Illinois’ next expected shipment was slashed by half by the federal government.

Pfizer this afternoon put out a statement saying it has, and continues to, work with Operation Ward Speed and successfully shipped the 2.9 million doses the feds had asked it to send.

“Pfizer is not having any production issues with our COVID-19 vaccine, and no shipments containing the vaccine are on hold or delayed. ... We have millions more doses sitting in our warehouse but, as of now, we have not received any shipment instructions for additional doses," the statement reads.

Ezike and the governor say they nonetheless are not concerned there won't be enough vaccine for those getting it now, to be able to get their second required dose in a few weeks.

Rush nurse Terry Gallagher works in an isolation facility for COVID-19 patients with nowhere else to go, and admits caring for those with the virus can be scary.

“It’s a calculated risk, but it’s a risk that we feel … it is our responsibility as nurses, to take care of this population and to ensure that everyone is cared for,” she said.

Gallagher says she will continue to wear a mask and personal protective equipment, but getting the vaccine feels like another layer of protection.

“I have family and friends that I haven’t hugged in eight or nine months, and I’m very excited about the possibility of that again,” Gallagher said.

Her loved ones can look forward to a (masked) hug in about 21 days’ time, after her vaccination regiment is complete.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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