Opening of United Center Mass Vaccination Site Marred by Confusion Over Eligibility

Even as the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were administered Tuesday morning at the United Center, confusion swirled over how many appointments remained available, who was eligible for those slots and when they would open for thousands desperate for the life-saving shot.

What had been intended by federal, state and local officials to be an early morning celebration of the opening of the mass vaccination site was instead marked by several misstatements by officials about the number of appointments that had been filled since Thursday morning, how many remained and who would be eligible for those coveted slots.

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Officials also did not provide any information about how residents of suburban Cook County or elsewhere in Illinois can sign up to be vaccinated at the United Center, even though they promised 24 hours earlier that information would be availble.

Instead, more information will not be available until “later this week” after rules have been crafted to make sure those who are most in need of the shot get it first, officials said.

Initially, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said 110,000 appointments at the United Center had been filled, only to be corrected by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Lightfoot then said a total of 40,000 appointments had been filled at the United Center. Arwady later corrected her, saying approximately 50,000 appointments were filled.

The back-and-forth marked the second day that federal, state and local officials attempted to shift the blame for the confusion which started after they realized that 60% of the approximately 40,000 people older than 65 who signed up for the first appointments available at the United Center were from outside Chicago.

READ: As Mass Vaccination Site Prepares to Open at United Center, Top Doc Acknowledges ‘Tricky,’ ‘Disappointing’ Process

That confusion drowned out efforts by elected officials to encourage everyone eligible for the vaccine to get a shot, particularly Black and Latino Chicagoans who may have concerns about its safety and efficacy. 

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said 43,000 people had signed up during the first phase of sign-ups set aside for older Illinois residents. However, Arwady later said that number was actually 37,000.

Approximately 75% of those people were White or Asian, Arwady said.

“Obviously, that is not representative of the communities that have been hardest hit,” Arwady said.

Between 40% and 45% of Chicagoans older than 65 who signed up between Thursday morning and Sunday afternoon were Black or Latino, Arwady said.

That data prompted officials to significantly change who was eligible for the remaining available appointments at the United Center site, restricting them to Chicago residents with underlying health conditions in an effort to ensure that those who most need the vaccine get the shot. Those changes were announced less than an hour before the eligibility expanded for appointments at 4 p.m. Sunday.

Approximately 10,000 appointments were opened for Chicagoans younger than age 65 with underlying health conditions, including cancer, obesity and diabetes. Those were filled shortly after 6 p.m. Sunday, according to ZocDoc, the city’s online vaccine appointment scheduler. 

Plans call for the mass vaccination center to operate from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week for eight weeks, making it possible for a total of 185,000 people to be vaccinated there in the first three weeks, with 6,000 shots administered each day, Arwady said. 

The city had been forced to cancel a number of appointments secured by those who lied about their age and address, Arwady said.

“People need to be truthful,” Arwady said during an online question-and-answer session Tuesday after the United Center news conference.

Chicago remains on track to move to the next phase of its vaccine effort on March 29, which would allow all essential workers to be vaccinated as well as all those with underlying health conditions as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

As soon as Monday, vaccine providers can start inoculating their patients who qualify under those rules if they have unfilled appointments or excess doses, Arwady said. 

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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