Just over a quarter of appointments booked at Sangamon County’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic for Feb. 1 through March 15 went to the county’s targeted population – healthcare workers and residents 85 and older.
The Sangamon County health department announced two weeks ago it would narrow eligibility for around 7,500 appointment slots for February and early March from the state’s broader qualifications for Phase 1B of vaccine rollout in order to concentrate on the most vulnerable population locally.
The county’s online vaccine sign-up system asked the person seeking an appointment to confirm they are 85 or older, or a healthcare worker before allowing them to continue to the registration page — a question some answered incorrectly, data from the county shows.
The registration page asked people to pick from a drop-down menu how they qualified. It included options that encompass anyone in Illinois’ Phase 1B, including teacher, principal and grocery store worker. This is despite the narrower age and profession criteria set by the county.
Around 73% self-identified as outside the county’s criteria, according to an analysis of county data by NPR Illinois.
In its criteria, the county did allow for residents who are 65 and older providing a ride for those 85 or older to sign up, which could lower that proportion. Still, the number of those between the ages of 65 and 84 outpaced the 85 plus group by a margin of nearly three to one, data provided by the county shows.
Seniors booked the most appointments at 3,781, followed by teachers, principals and student support workers, then home health workers. Phase 1B includes all seniors 65 and older and essential workers, such as teachers, first responders, those who work at or stay at shelters, corrections officers and inmates, and postal and transit workers.
Sangamon County Department of Public Health Director Gail O’Neill said future appointments will be open to anyone in Phase 1B of the state’s eligibility criteria. However, she’s unsure when the county will add more appointments for its clinic.
Walgreens and Hy-Vee pharmacies are offering appointments to anyone in Phase 1B as well. The county’s large healthcare institutions have been vaccinating their staff, and some, including HSHS St. John’s and Memorial Health System, have offered the vaccine to a limited number of patients. Demographics for their appointments are not reflected in these numbers.
The timing of the policy change may have led to some confusion about who could get an appointment at Sangamon County’s clinic.
This is because around the same time of the county’s announcement of its pared down approach, the Illinois Department of Public Health expanded eligibility. IDPH moved the state into Phase 1B of vaccine distribution, allowing anyone over 65 and many essential workers to get appointments at commercial pharmacies and other sites around the state.
Sangamon County was already in Phase 1B, having moved in mid-January after IDPH said individual counties could do so if they felt their vaccine supply allowed it. After that announcement, appointments at Sangamon County’s clinic for January booked quickly, with the county promising to open more soon.
But two weeks later, Sangamon County health officials narrowed the criteria for who could sign up before releasing more appointments for first doses. They cited a limited supply of vaccine doses and the need to target those who are at highest risk for serious illness and death from the virus.
O’Neill, the department’s director, said she’s disappointed some did not answer the initial screening question truthfully. But she said the focus now is to work with healthcare providers to expand access to the vaccine.
Many health departments and pharmacies have struggled with people abusing the honor system to jump the vaccine line.
County officials are confident those who signed up at least are in Phase 1B of distribution. O’Neill said officials discussed cancelling appointments for those who were not health workers or 85 years or older. But she said they feared they’d have to call many of them back to reschedule if slots remained open.
O’Neill said they’ll honor the appointments and future slots will be open to anyone in Phase 1B.