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Sangamon County Narrows COVID Vaccine Priority To Seniors, Starting With 85 And Older

A COVID-19 testing site outside of Sangamon County Health Department.
Mary Hansen
NPR Illinois
A COVID-19 testing site outside of Sangamon County Health Department.
Credit Mary Hansen / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois

The Sangamon County Department of Public Health on Monday announced it will prioritize COVID-19 vaccine doses for seniors, starting with those 85 and older.

All seniors over 65 are eligible for COVID shots now that Illinois is in Phase 1b of its vaccine rollout plan. But the county health department cited a limited and inconsistent supply of doses and “frustration and confusion” due to the lack of supply as reasons for narrowing eligibility for its vaccination clinic, in a document released Monday.

For the last two weeks, Sangamon County offered vaccine appointments to all seniors over 65 and frontline essential workers covered under Phase 1b.

Sangamon County Board of Health President Dr. Brian Miller said this was a testing phase to test systems for appointment scheduling, administering the shots, documentation and follow-up.

Given continued limited availability of doses, Miller said after healthcare workers, the next logical priority is inoculating those most likely to get seriously ill, be hospitalized or die from COVID-19.

“Those are the people that are going to be utilizing the healthcare system the most,” Miller said. “And if we can eliminate that as an issue by vaccinating them, we lessen the strain on the healthcare system so that we can and then we can reach out and then start inoculating the next group of people.”

Those with comorbidities are also likely to get very sick, but Miller said the easiest way to assess risk and narrow eligibility is by age group.

In addition to giving second doses to residents who got the shot in January, the goal is to give the estimated 4,500 available first doses to seniors 85 and older, and anyone over 65 accompanying them, according to the document released by the health department.

Beginning Tuesday, eligible individuals can sign up on SCDPH’s website or its hotline, 217-321-2606, for February appointments.

The county estimates there are around 4,000 residents 85 and older. However, according to Sangamon County spokesman Jeff Wilhite, the county doesn’t have an estimate of how many live in long-term care facilities and might have gotten shots already through a separate federal program for nursing homes.

As appointment sign-ups for the oldest age group slow, the health department will then allow those 80 and older to get an appointment, and so on in five-year increments, Miller said.

Still, Miller said that if the Illinois Department of Public Health allocated the 10,000 doses or more per week the county has requested, the health department along with the five large healthcare organizations could begin mass vaccination clinics.

“We could put the plan into action if we get vaccines in our hands,” Miller said.

Under SCDPH’s plan, a partnership between the health department, Memorial Medical Center, HSHS St. John’s, SIU Medicine and Springfield Clinic could offer 1,500 shots a day, instead of the 300 given at the health department now.

Miller said he does not have a timeline from IDPH of when that volume of doses would be available.

“This is not just our county’s problem, and this is not the state’s problem. It's a nationwide problem,” he said.

‘Confusion And Frustration’

In the document released Monday, SCDPH noted that it has to provide second doses to everyone who got a vaccine in January. Therefore, it would only be able to provide half the number of first doses in February that it did the month before at the current rate it’s getting vaccine doses from the state.

The imbalance between supply of doses and demand “has caused enormous confusion and frustration across our community,” according to the department.

County officials said they needed to focus on a cohort small enough that they’d have sufficient doses to meet the demand and noted that the elderly are most likely to suffer complications from a COVID infection, including hospitalization and death. It also said that seniors had the most trouble getting appointments through the online and hotline system.

“Good epidemiological practice might argue for prioritizing population cohorts more responsible for the spread of the disease than those most likely to be the victims,” the document said. “But the cohort of possible ‘spreaders’ is too amorphous to define and too large to serve in any adequate way with the current supply of vaccine.”

Additional doses distributed to Sangamon County will be prioritized for “cohorts that can respond most efficiently,” according to the document, which could include first responders and eventually teachers working the same building or area.

The Sangamon County health department has been giving doses leftover at the end of the day due to no-shows or cancellations to on-duty police officers and firefighters. Thanks to this system, the health department said it has wasted only one dose of the vaccine. 

Copyright 2021 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.

Mary is a reporter at NPR Illinois and graduated from the Public Affairs Reporting program atUISand received her BA in International Studies from American University. Previously Mary worked as a planning consultant and reported for the State Journal-Register where she covered city government.