click to enlarge SCDPH is running vaccination clinics in its building and in drive-thrus seven days per week. - PHOTO BY CAROL WEEMS
Photo by Carol Weems
SCDPH is running vaccination clinics in its building and in drive-thrus seven days per week.

In December the first high-risk priority groups, health care personnel, all hospital staff and anyone working or residing in long-term care facilities were encouraged to participate in vaccine clinics. They are designated group 1a.

Sangamon County announced people aged 65 and older and frontline essential workers like firefighters, grocery workers and educators could begin scheduling immunization appointments on Jan. 18. They are in what's deemed group 1b.

But vaccination appointments in Sangamon County are full through Feb. 1. For those belonging to groups 1a or 1b looking to receive the vaccine, updates can be found on the Sangamon County Dept. of Public Health website or the county's Facebook page. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are given in two doses, the first being administered 21 days apart and the latter 28.

The last groups to receive vaccines in Phase 1 are people between the ages of 16 and 64 with prior health conditions that could heighten the severity of COVID-19 such as heart or kidney disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity. Included in 1c are also people working in public transportation, banks, construction, and all other essential employees. Phase 2 is the final phase, when the vaccine becomes accessible to the general public. It will likely be months before it's reached.

The challenges

While the county health department said it is being as transparent as possible about vaccines – including a new online dashboard tracking the rate of daily vaccinations – having information online has not meant clarity.

Sangamon County began administering vaccines to groups in Phase 1b earlier than expected but quickly ran into problems. One being whether to prioritize specific groups in 1b like teachers or child care providers.

Several counties have "opted at this point not to specialize or prioritize" any groups "mostly because we don't have a lot of information about how much vaccine is coming to us in any given week," said Gail O'Neill, director of the Sangamon County Department of Public Health.

When SCDPH began receiving Pfizer and Moderna shipments, officials immediately decided to hold onto two vaccines for every patient, to ensure they would receive both doses in the required time frame. However, they were told "not to worry" or not to "hold on to vaccines." Vaccine shipments have staggered in, sometimes days later than expected. O'Neill said the delayed shipments have caused administrative staff to worry.

An early move to vaccinate groups from 1b in Sangamon County also created confusion. In the second week of January, the local health department only scheduled 56 of the 290 available appointments. The low number of vaccine enrollments prompted O'Neill to announce the appointment openings.

This created an influx of those seeking to schedule immunizations, and not everyone was even in group 1b. The confusion regarding prioritized groups allowed "people from 1b and possibly others in for appointments," according to O'Neill. Instead of wasting resources, the director honored the appointments.

Springfield radio news host and reporter Jim Leach was one to get an appointment ahead of schedule, which he wrote about. O'Neill told Illinois Times the glitch allowing people to get vaccines before they meet the official criteria has been fixed.

Moving on to Phase 1b

On Jan. 25 the state as a whole moved into Phase 1b, which theoretically allows first-responders and essential workers like law enforcement, child care providers and people 65 or older to receive COVID-19 immunization appointments. Scheduling them, however, is another matter.

Sangamon County receives close to 2,000 vaccine doses a week and is on schedule to administer 290 vaccines per day. To fix the scheduling issues and ensure people most at risk receive immunizations first, starting Jan. 26 SCDPH will schedule first-dose inoculation appointments only for people aged 85 or older. This is temporary, but will continue at least through the week and until the increased volume of callers in this age range subsides. Drivers or caregivers are included in this prioritization as well, so long as they are 65 or older.

Since the problems with people getting vaccinated who didn't qualify, reported earlier in January, the department has also required people to provide "proof of employment and identification for those (under the age of 65) who are working and claiming to be in the 1b category," O'Neill wrote in an email. Those who qualify still might have to wait to get an appointment, and keep calling the health department or keep checking its website: scdph.org.

Scaling up vaccination distribution now depends on a federal release of second doses and whether additional vaccines receive the Emergency Use Authorization stamp of approval.

O'Neill said the best way to get an appointment is to closely watch the SCDPH website. Removing the black banner of lettering which appears above the scheduling tab is the first thing the department does to signal appointments have opened up.

Additionally, O'Neill said slots can become available when individuals cancel their appointments, and some in the community are "constantly watching and refreshing their computer so that they can get that first appointment if they find it." While many are near a final milestone of this pandemic – and after so much waiting – patience remains a key part of the equation.

Contact Madison Angell at mangell@illinoistimes.com.

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