SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — As Illinois struggles to keep pace with other states in the race to vaccinate the masses, Governor Pritzker continues to present a positive spin on the slow rollout.
When reporters asked why the state was ranked last in the nation at administering the second doses of the vaccine last Monday, Pritzker responded with a different set of numbers.
“We are number one among the top ten largest states in the country in terms of first vaccinations,” Pritzker said, adding that “the complexities of a large stare are much different than a state like South Dakota or West Virginia.”
As of March 1st, just 6.4% of Illinois residents had both doses of the vaccine. Only Texas, Iowa, and Utah currently rank lower than Illinois in that category.
Previously, Pritzker had blamed the state’s slow rollout on corporate pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens, arguing that if you excluded their vaccine numbers from the state’s total count, our distribution numbers would rate higher.
“Every state in the nation is experiencing this same shortage,” Pritzker said, turning his frustration to the former president. “It’s another example of the Trump administration’s tragic incompetence that they didn’t invoke the Defense Production Act and didn’t order more vaccine from the manufacturers. Well, we have a new president now and he’s already taken steps to expand vaccine manufacturing.”
Two days after Pritzker made those remarks, Congressmen Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL 8th District) and Bill Foster (D-IL 11th District) penned a letter to President Biden’s COVID-19 czar, urging the new administration to ramp up the vaccine distribution to Illinois due to the state’s large population size.
“Illinois currently ranks 35th in the country in terms of per capita vaccine distribution from the federal government,” the two members of Congress wrote.
Instead, in the days the followed, the state’s per capita vaccine allocations declined compared to other states. One week later, Krishnamoorthi’s chief of staff Mark Schauerte emailed Pritzker’s chief of staff Anne Caprara to recommend “a talking point for the Governor.”
“Since we sent the letter last week, Illinois dropped from 35th to 42nd in state dosage received from the fed (sic) government per capita,” Schauerte wrote.
Despite the worsening numbers, Krishnamoorthi’s office was reluctant to publicly criticize the new administration, and instead laid the blame at the feet of former President Trump.
“We are obviously mindful of not pointing the finger directly at the Biden Administration, but pointing out the Trump hangover on this from their lack of planning,” Schauerte wrote.
In his first public appearance since leaving office, Trump claimed “total credit” for the vaccine rollout, saying “Joe Biden is only implementing the plan that we put in place.”
While politicians bicker over who to blame or who deserves credit, county public health administrators are stretched thin as their staff continue the painstaking work of contact tracing combined with the new challenge of distributing the vaccine.
“It’s a juggling act,” Sangamon County Public Health Administrator Gail O’Neill said on Monday.
“We have people in the community that have gotten a first dose somewhere else and are unable to find the second dose,” she said. Her staff enters data into a state-provided vaccination system that helps the Illinois Department of Public Health monitor where to send vaccine shipments.
The frenzied pace and moving parts in the vaccine rollout contributed to a sense of confusion and frustration. Several local health departments learned about new state guidance from press releases, and said they were sometimes caught off guard by the Pritzker administration’s decisions.
“That has been our experience,” O’Neill said. “The one that most recently [caught us off guard] was the Governor’s message to increase the 1b category when a lot of the health departments weren’t really done or had a sense that most of their 1b category hadn’t been vaccinated yet.”
Pritzker’s announcement that adults with underlying medical conditions could start booking appointments for their vaccinations came on the same day the state set up a special pop-up clinic in Springfield for state legislators to receive their shots.
“To include more people that have more illnesses at the same time when there’s not enough vaccine, it kind of puts us in a bit of displeasure with the public when the state says you can get your vaccine now, and then the local health department has to say, ‘Yeah, but we don’t have vaccine for you right now.'”
Sangamon County is home to 14 vaccine locations, including a mass vaccination site at the Illinois State Fairgrounds where National Guard troops started vaccinating people last month. Pritzker used the fairgrounds as the backdrop for a pre-recorded State of the State Address where he summoned “the patience of Job as we continue awaiting our supply of vaccine that will met our demand.”
A spokesman for the Illinois National Guard said 1,070 soldiers are currently deployed to staff 16 vaccine sites across the state and eight mobile vans that travel to where they’re needed.
O’Neill acknowledged the state’s communications efforts have started to improve with weekly webinars and three-week rolling vaccine estimates, and said that most of the logistical problems would fade from view if there were enough vaccine doses to go around.
“It’s been a little challenging, but I’m not sure it’s all the state’s fault,” she said. “It kind of trickles down.”
The first doses of Johnson and Johnson’s single-shot Coronavirus vaccine are scheduled to arrive in Illinois as early as this week, according to the Governor’s office.