At the Orr Building at the corner of the Illinois State Fairgrounds, Lisa Scacco — sporting an “I got my COVID-19 vaccine” sticker — spends the observation period after her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
“I feel great. I’m happy, I’m excited,” Scacco said. She lives in Arlington Heights in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, and made the three-hour-plus drive to Springfield on a recent Sunday morning with a couple friends.
She said she tried unsuccessfully for days to book an appointment closer to home when she became eligible for the shot.
“A lot of (website) refreshing… A lot of it looks like it’s going to give you an appointment but it’s not,” Scacco said. “Not the most searching of anyone I know, but enough.”
A friend who qualified for a vaccine in an earlier phase received his first dose in Springfield, and told Scacco how easy it was, so she signed up. The vaccination site is open to any Illinois resident 16 and older, and offers the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Appointments are available at the Sangamon County Department of Public Health’s website.
Scacco and her friends are among around 2,500 Cook County residents who have booked appointments at the state fairgrounds. That’s nearly a tenth of the more than 27,000 slots booked between mid-February and the end of this month, according to data from the Sangamon County Department of Public Health, which runs the site in partnership with the Illinois National Guard.
The scarcity of COVID vaccine appointments in parts of Illinois, particularly Chicago and its suburbs, is prompting some residents to travel up to several hours to get vaccinated.
A University of Chicago medical ethicist said the so-called “vaccine tourism” reveals flaws in distribution of the life-saving shots this spring.
As of last week, the Illinois Department of Public Health has shifted how it’s allocating doses to local health departments to focus on “areas where demand exceeds current allocations,” according to a Friday statement from a spokeswoman for Gov. JB Pritzker.
“We were surprised and pleased that people are coming from other areas because they’ve heard that we are operating a very good and efficient site,” said Sangamon County Department of Public Health Director Gail O’Neill.
National Guard members check people in, collect consent forms, and direct them to dozens of numbered tables set up at the back of the building where medical professionals administer the shots. Most are through the process in less than 10 minutes, and then are directed to wait the 15-minute observation period on folding chairs spaced six feet apart. National Guard members staff another few tables at the exit, armed with tablets to schedule second-dose appointments.
But it’s more than the smooth process that attracts people from around the state. The main draw is thousands of available slots. O’Neill said they provide around 1,200 shots a day, but appointments go unfilled.
“That's a lot of people and we're happy about it,” O’Neill said. “But we wanted to get it up to full gear and see the 2,000 people come through.”
Because of the ample supply, Sangamon County’s health department expanded eligibility to the general public nearly two weeks earlier than the rest of Illinois. And O’Neill said she has turned down a couple shipments of vaccine doses from the state, totaling “not more than 4,000 doses.”
“For the last couple of weeks, we have declined so that it could go to some of those other sites,” she said.
Other health departments around the state have also been declining or sending back doses, according to IDPH.
People traveling hours for an appointment shows flaws in vaccine distribution, said Dr. William Parker, assistant director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago.
“I don't think there's anything wrong with that on a personal level,” Parker said. “But it does reflect a larger failure at the state and federal government level.”
The city of Chicago runs its own vaccination program independent of the rest of Illinois. The federal government sends vaccine doses directly to the city health department, separate from the state’s allotment.
That larger failure, Parker said, is not distributing the vaccine in the most efficient way.
“Efficiency doesn't necessarily mean speed,” he said. “Efficiency means the vaccine distribution plan that optimizes the number of lives saved.”
An efficient allocation would be based on areas hardest hit by the pandemic, where vaccination rates lag and areas with rising case counts, Parker said.
“Hopefully, allocation changes can happen to help better meet demand in [Chicago],” he said.
Some counties have skipped or pared down their requests for vaccine doses in recent weeks, said Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for IDPH, in an emailed statement. The department has reallocated them, prioritizing supply for mass vaccination sites, including a dozen in the Chicago suburbs.
With the temporary pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine announced last week, IDPH is sending its first shipment of doses to the city of Chicago: 50,000 first doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines with another 50,000 second doses to follow
IDPH has also changed its approach to allocating first doses to all local health departments, according to a Friday statement from Jordan Abudayyeh, a spokeswoman for Pritzker. Instead of basing it on population, IDPH will allocate doses based on demand from local agencies.
At the Illinois State Fairgrounds, locals from Sangamon County have booked the majority of appointments, followed by those from Cook County, and then residents from McLean County. That includes Darla Carmona and her 16-year-old son, Alex, who are from Bloomington.
“When it opened up to 16 year-olds, I made an appointment here immediately,” said Carmona. She said she called her pediatrician’s office 75 times the day eligibility expanded there, which would have avoided the hour drive. But by the time she got through, appointments had been booked.
Carmona said she felt the urgency as COVID-19 case counts have been on the rise in the last month.
“The numbers are going up so quick, with the kids back in school, back in sports,” Carmona said. “The only way we’re going to stop this is if we get vaccinated.”
Dr. Halleh Akbarnia is an emergency room physician in Libertyville, north of Chicago, and member of the Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team, an advocacy group for medical professionals. She's active on the Chicago Vaccine Hunters Facebook group. She booked an appointment for her 18-year-old daughter at the state-run site in Quincy, and her husband drove her daughter the nearly ten-hour round trip.
“I mentioned it to a lot of the people at her school and many people made that trip that day,” Akbarnia said. “We're happy to take our kids and our families down there. But we're not taking somebody else's spot. And that I think is a huge part of it too.”
Akbarnia and others on the Facebook group, which assists people in finding vaccinations, recommended the state fairgrounds site and other sites downstate. But now that supply has increased, Akbarnia said more opportunities are opening up closer to home.
“For the first time in the entire time that this (Facebook group) has been up, we noticed a tiny drop in its numbers,” Akbarnia said, with membership dropping from more than 93,000 members to just over 92,000. “It's the first drop in the members, which tells you people are starting to find what they're looking for.”
Carmona and her son, as well as Lisa Scacco, from Arlington Heights, are scheduled to travel back to Springfield in a few weeks for their second shots.