Chicago expects to receive the first 20,000-to-25,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine by the third and fourth week in December and has built up an “unusual amount of cold storage capacity” to handle the onslaught, Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Tuesday.
First in line will be Chicago’s 37 hospitals so they can at least begin the job of vaccinating their “highest-risk” health care workers.
The initial doses won’t be enough to vaccinate all of them, even though they are expected to come with both the first and second doses.
So, priority will be given to those health care workers who are “seeing COVID patients” and those “performing procedures that put them at highest risk,” according to Dr. Carla Robinson, a medical director at the Chicago Department of Public Health.
The first round of vaccines will also go to employees of Chicago’s long-term care facilities. That includes both skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities.
Only after health care and long-term care employees are vaccinated will City Hall begin the monumental task of vaccinating at least 70% of its general population needed to achieve what’s known as “herd immunity.”
Who comes next will depend on federal guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and guidance from the National Academies of Science, Medicine and Engineering.
It’s likely to be: first-responders at highest risk of exposure; health care workers who are not affiliated with a hospital or health system; residents of long-term care facilities; people with underlying conditions; residents over 65 and essential workers.
“We do not anticipate at this point an allocation-per-neighborhood. We want to make vaccine widely available…It will be prioritized based on risk,” Arwady said.
“But we’ve seen that essential workers, for example, are more likely to live in some of the neighborhoods that have been hardest hit. And so, in that way, those neighborhoods would be prioritized.”
With roughly 25,000 doses of Pfizer vaccines expected to arrive every week and Moderna vaccines expected to be just one week behind, the city expects to “scale up rapidly.”
That’s particularly true because there is a federal system that “allocates vaccine based on population” provided Chicago can show that it is “using that vaccine appropriately,” Arwady said.
“We have very good plans that will allow us to continue to scale vaccine at whatever rate it is made available,” Arwady said.
“Are there employers, for example, who we can help support or connect? A grocery store chain may work to be vaccinating its workers. A school system…A transportation system…[And] certainly the Chicago Department of Public Health is anticipating standing up some larger mass-vaccination sites. Those will be available, initially, by appointment.”
The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit. The Moderna vaccine has a storage requirement of minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit.
That won’t be a problem for the Chicago Department of Public Health, which has built, what Arwady calls a “very unusual amount of cold storage capacity for a city.” She refused to disclose where that cold storage capacity is located, except to say it’s a warehouse with “a lot of layers of security.”
“This is an example of our emergency preparedness program starting way back in the spring. We bought a lot of needles and syringes and…all the other things you need to launch a mass vaccination campaign. And then, as we were learning more about these vaccine candidates, we have been purchasing additional freezer capacity,” the commissioner said.
“We have plenty of capacity here for what we would expect to receive related to the ultra-cold because, remember, we’re pushing it out every week as we get it. And I am really confident in the plans that we have related to distribution.”
Arwady openly acknowledged the skepticism of the coronavirus vaccine, particularly in the African American community that has, along with Hispanics, borne the brunt of the pandemic.
But she said the “door-to-door campaign” known as “Protect Chicago” that is already underway is tailor-made to reduce that fear factor.
“We’re doing a lot of thinking and planning about how to create the space for conversations at a community level. Thinking about pairing health care workers who work in certain zip codes and are feeling supportive of the vaccine…with community leaders, church leaders [and] groups who are interested in having conversations. Especially in communities of color here in Chicago where we’re anticipating perhaps less initial uptake, partly based on some of that history,” the commissioner said.
Arwady said she is hopeful that by mid-2021 or the third quarter of next year, Chicago will be in “a very different place.” She is equally hopeful that the coronavirus vaccine will be a one-and-done. Unlike the flu vaccine, it won’t need to be administered every year.
But she warned that mask-wearing, social distancing and limits on the size of social gatherings will be required for the foreseeable future.
“As we have a higher percentage of the population vaccinated, we’ll be able to start dialing back on some of those restrictions. This is, I’m confident, the way that we will get past this and that it will happen in 2021,” she said.
“But it’s gonna be a combination of rolling vaccine out quickly and effectively, seeing good uptick of the vaccine, which is a bigger question. And combined with people continuing to do the things that we know work against COVID as the vaccine campaign is rolling out.”