First COVID-19 vaccine

Emily Meyer, right, director of pharmacy for Riverside Healthcare, and Zachary St. Pierre, pharmacy resident, prepare the first round of COVID-19 vaccinations in Kankakee County on Dec. 16 at Riverside Medical Center.

When Illinois’ COVID-19 vaccination program expands eligibility to allow for anyone with an underlying health condition to get in line for a shot, the state’s most populous county said it won’t follow suit, something that could send hundreds of thousands into lines in surrounding counties.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that, on Feb. 25, the state’s “Phase 1B” group currently eligible to get a vaccine will expand to include people of any age with underlying health conditions that would make them more susceptible to the virus.

Less than 24 hours later, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board Chairwoman Toni Preckwinkle announced that they would not expand their program for lack of total vaccines.

“Our goal is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly and efficiently as possible,” the two said in a joint news release. “That said, our greatest challenge in doing so is the very limited supply of vaccine we are receiving. While we are making progress every day with vaccinating people in 1a and 1b, at this time we are not being supplied with enough doses that would allow us to expand eligibility in these phases.”

They estimate that adding people of any age with pre-existing conditions to Cook County’s program would add 1 million people.

“We’ve only gotten enough vaccine to do 5-10% of all of the people who are already eligible,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, director of the Chicago Department of Public Health. “If we add additional people right now to 1B, all we do is make it harder for the people who are already eligible to get that vaccine.”

Some states and countries that have availability experience “vaccine tourism,” the disparity could lead hundreds of thousands of people into the Chicago suburbs seeking out vaccinations.

"We don't have adequate supply now," said Sue Olenek, executive director of the Will County Public Health Department. "It will be that much more difficult to meet demand."

County-based vaccination programs often have a residency or employment requirement.

"We want to get the Phase 1B group vaccinated as quickly as possible but with the addition of people with high-risk conditions added into phase 1B, that will certainly delay when we can proceed forward to the next priority group," said Lindsey Salvatelli, community information coordinator at the McHenry County Health Department. "We are telling our 65 and older population about these different retail pharmacies that are available on the state's vaccine locator page just to give them some additional options."

Calls to three suburban Walgreens' pharmacies confirmed that they have no residency requirement.

Pritzker addressed the split between Illinois and Cook County on Friday.

“We feel good about the opportunity to serve those folks,” he said. “When [Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices], the CDC committee, made its recommendations, it particularly focused on expansion to those with co-morbidities.”

Pritzker said half of the people who are offered the vaccine chose not to take it.