By Bob Uphues
On Jan. 25, the Cook County Health Clinic at 1800 Harlem Ave. in North Riverside became an important hub in the state's campaign to vaccinate as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, against COVID-19 as the global pandemic enters its second year.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday morning announced that as of noon that day the state would begin Phase 1B of its vaccination program, which includes some 600,000 Cook County residents, including those 65 and older as well as a slew of essential workers, including first responders, postal service workers, grocery store employees, public transit workers, teachers and school administrators and those working in adult daycare settings.
Anyone who qualifies for a vaccination in Cook County under Phase 1B can now make an appointment through a special website that went live Jan. 25 at vaccine.cookcountyil.gov. You can also make an appointment by phone by dialing the county's vaccination appointment hotline at 1-833-308-1988.
The website also includes a list of FAQs, reason why you should get vaccinated and information on the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines themselves.
But it appears people are going to have to patient. Less than 24 hours after the county's new website began booking appointments for its 13 vaccination sites, every available spot was filled.
"The rollout of Phase 1B is truly an exciting development, but I want to remind everyone that there are only about 120,000 first doses arriving in Illinois – outside of Chicago, that is – this week," Pritzker said.
"Because of the federal supply limitations, I want to emphasize that vaccinations are being given by appointment only. I've said that before, but I want to make it clear so people don't go line up at their local pharmacy or line up at their local health department."
Health officials expect the limited number of appointments available at the North Riverside site and at other clinics will be booked quickly. However, said Cook County Health CEO Israel Rocha Jr., that should not dissuade people from visiting the new appointment website and registering their information.
According to Rocha, whether you are someone who qualifies for Phase 1B or not, "you should register your information so that as you become eligible for a vaccine, you will receive updates."
"We are anxious to vaccinate all the people that are able to receive the shot, but patience is needed as the federal government works to ramp up production," Rocha said. "When you visit our microsite at vaccine.cookcountyil.gov it is critical to remember that all sites share appointments at this one time."
The website only reflects appointments for which a vaccine is guaranteed, said Rocha.
North Riverside clinic is one of just four operated by Cook County Health taking appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations, but there are more than 90 other locations at Walgreens, CVS and Jewel-Osco pharmacies. Hundreds more sites will open as vaccine supplies ramp up, Pritzker said during his Monday press conference at the Tinley Park Convention Center, which has been chosen as a large-scale vaccination site capable of delivering up to 18,000 doses a week when at capacity.
"As more vaccine comes available from the federal government, additional mass vaccination sites are slated to begin operations, built on existing community vaccination efforts," Pritzker said.
Cook County is being aided in its efforts to ramp up vaccine distribution by partnering with the Illinois National Guard. About a dozen National Guard troops were assigned to the North Riverside clinic on Jan. 19 and will be assisting there through at least March 31, according to 2nd Lt. Alex Villafuerte.
The troops were assigned to the site during Phase 1A to administer vaccinations to frontline healthcare workers.
"We're here to help out the nurses with administering the vaccinations, so between civilian nurses and combat medics that are here, we have about five people giving the COVID vaccinations," Villafuerte said. "At this location we're averaging about 150 vaccinations per day."
Dr. Daniel Vittum, lead physician and medical director of the Cook County Health Clinic in North Riverside, said the National Guard troops will help dramatically increase the number of vaccine doses it would otherwise be able to provide.
"The 1B pool of people is much larger, so we're going to need more vaccine, more vaccinators, more people to register and that's why [the National Guard troops] are here," Vittum said, adding that with the added help they should be able to push to 275 doses daily. "It's a massive operation, so we want to do it right and we want to do it equitably and we want to do it quickly, but we want to do it correctly."