SPRINGFIELD – Hundreds of nurses, doctors and other medical staff at central Illinois hospitals received their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine this week.
Memorial Health System officials expect to have inoculated around 1,600 frontline health workers across four of their hospitals by the end of the day Friday, and a spokeswoman for HSHS St. John’s Hospital said they’ll be giving shots throughout the weekend.
“This is truly a ray of hope for all of us,” said Dr. Prashant Jagtap, St. John’s medical director of critical care.
Jagtap was one of the first at the hospital to receive the vaccine Wednesday. He said he’s treated many young people with no underlying conditions hospitalized for COVID-19.
“This gives me more faith in continuing to do what we are doing,” Jagtap said.
As the Regional Hospital Coordinating Center for west-central Illinois, St. John’s received a shipment of 1,395 doses Wednesday to distribute among six other hospitals: Passavant Area in Jacksonville got 440 doses, Mason District in Havana 110, Taylorville 50, Pana Community 50, and Illinois Community in Pittsfield 40.
After initially being slated not to get any doses, St. John’s split its allocation of 705 with Memorial Medical Center in Springfield.
Both health systems plan to take advantage of additional doses to inoculate more frontline health workers after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and FDA this week approved extracting a sixth and occasionally even seventh dose out of each vial, originally said to have contained five doses.
This upped Memorial’s available doses for its hospitals in Springfield, Jacksonville, Decatur and Taylorville from 1,335 to 1,602, according to Jennifer Harris, chair of the system’s vaccine committee.
Hospital officials say they’re prioritizing the first doses for those who have the most contact with COVID-19 patients, often those working on COVID units or in emergency departments.
Dr. Scott Boston, president and CEO of Memorial’s Passavant Hospital in Jacksonville, volunteered to administer the vaccine shot to others, and thus was one of the first to be inoculated. He said he’s seen excitement among his colleagues as they’ve gotten their shots, often taking selfies as they get them.
“They’re seeing this as a truly historic moment,” Boston said. “We are going to be able to protect ourselves, we’re going to be to protect our community and our patients, and finally get through this pandemic.”
Still, public health and hospital officials warn it could be months before doses are available for the general public, and even longer until herd immunity is reached. In the meantime, wearing masks, keeping social distance and washing hands remain important tools to prevent the spread of the virus.
“As we continue to go through this phase, we all need to be cautious, careful, and continue with our public health measures,” said St. John’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Gurpreet Mander. “I’m quite optimistic that in due course of time once, we’ll have a large enough population vaccinated that we’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
As of Thursday morning, the initial 43,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine Illinois received on Monday were distributed to 77 hospitals in Illinois, and the other 43,000 doses arrived at Illinois’ Strategic National Stockpile in Chicago, set for distribution in the coming days. The city of Chicago is in charge of its own vaccine distribution, as it’s receiving vaccine shipments directly from the federal government.
Statewide, 3,500 frontline healthcare workers in Illinois had already been inoculated as of Thursday morning, Gov. JB Pritzker said.
But shipments of the vaccine in the near future are unclear; Pritzker announced Wednesday the federal government reduced the number of doses Illinois would receive over the next two weeks, though WBEZ reports the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services disputes the claim.
Pritzker on Thursday said he still hasn’t received an explanation as to why the expected number of doses Illinois and other states and big cities would receive was cut in half. But when asked to respond to Pfizer’s contention that it has millions of doses ready and is awaiting direction from the feds, the governor had no answer.
“I don’t know what to say about that,” Pritzker said. “I have not had any direct conversatioins iwth the people who control those doses. Our IDPH talks to the federal government every day and we’ve not been informed why the federal government is not drawing down those vaccines.”
Boston said Memorial is ready to use as many vaccine doses as it can get.
“This is a limited supply. It is a scarce resource. And we want to be very good stewards of that scarce resource that we’ve been given,” Boston said, adding that he was confident doses would continue to arrive to vaccinate health workers over the next several weeks.
Meanwhile, the statewide plan for distribution of the initial shipment of doses was finalized this week. The distribution plan from the Illinois Department of Public Health prioritized the counties with highest death rates, which excluded Sangamon County.
However, seven counties that made the list of 50 identified for the first wave of vaccines did not have hospitals. Those counties gave up their doses to be divided up among hospitals in their region, and IDPH reallocated some doses to regional coordinating hospitals.
The recipient hospitals include St. John’s, Memorial Hospital of Carbondale, Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, and OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, none of whose home counties (Sangamon, Jackson, Champaign and Peoria) made the initial list.