SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Department of Public Health on Friday afternoon launched a COVID-19 vaccine hotline — something advocates have been asking Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration to do for months.
Seniors with limited computer literacy, Illinoisans with no internet access and those who do not speak English have been at a disadvantage for getting vaccine appointments, advocates say, because pharmacies and public health departments have prioritized online platforms to schedule shots.
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“We want to make sure our most vulnerable populations, such as our seniors and individuals in heavily impacted communities who may not have access to online services, are able to make appointments to receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” IDPH Director Ngozi Ezike said in a press release issued Friday. “While vaccine is still limited, our allocations are increasing significantly and we want all Illinoisans to have access as quickly and easily as possible.”
The hotline launched Friday afternoon with little fanfare, no press conference and no advance notice. The state quietly put out a request for proposals for companies to run the hotline on Feb. 11. According to documentation posted on IDPH’s website, a contract award was expected on Feb. 23 with an estimated start date of Feb. 25.
A spokeswoman for Pritzker said the state contracted with Xtend Healthcare to run the hotline. Tennessee-based Xtend Healthcare is a medical billing firm owned by student loan collection company Navient, but Xtend has also been contracted to run New Jersey’s vaccine hotline and was controversially awarded a no-bid contract for contact tracing efforts in Tennessee.
When NPR Illinois called the hotline Friday afternoon shortly after it launched, the agent who answered said she was based in Jacksonville, Fla.
Though IDPH set up a website dedicated to answering vaccine questions earlier this year, it only helps users find potential locations to get a vaccine near them and links to various health providers’ websites, rather than providing a centralized system to make an appointment.
The automated menu for Illinois’ new Vaccine Appointment Call Center still steers callers to the state’s website, but live agents can help guide those with internet access to make an appointment online. For those with internet access but no email address of their own, the hotline’s automated menu recommends using a trusted family member’s email — but for vaccine seekers with no access to the internet, agents can make appointments for them.
IDPH says the hotline will have 500 agents answering calls at peak times, who speak English and Spanish, “with the “ability for translation into other languages,” according to the agency.
The toll-free number for the hotline is 833-621-1284 and is open seven days a week from 6 a.m. to midnight CST.
The hotline is for anyone who resides outside of Chicago, as the city is in charge of its own vaccine distribution program.
Eligibility and distribution
Illinois’ current vaccine eligibility is for anyone 65 or older, healthcare and other frontline essential workers including teachers, first responders and grocery store employees. As of Friday, the majority of long-term care facilities in Illinois have been visited more than once by Walgreens or CVS as part of a push to vaccinate residents and staff in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Additionally, Illinoisans 16 and over with underlying conditions like cancer, heart conditions, diabetes and other comorbidities that weaken a person’s immune system and could make a COVID-19 infection deadly are eligible for vaccines, including smokers and former smokers.
For full eligibility details, visit coronavirus.illinois.gov.
Appointment availability and speed of vaccine varies widely throughout the state. Eligible Illinoisans in more populated areas of the state have the choice between various pharmacies, hospitals, local health departments and mass vaccination sites. But those in more rural areas may only have a local health department nearby.
In Adams County in western Illinois, where Quincy anchors the county of approximately 65,000 people, 25 percent of the population is vaccinated. However, approximately 270 miles southeast in Alexander County, where Cairo is county seat, just 2.2% of its approximately 5,700 residents have been vaccinated so far, according to IDPH data.
President Joe Biden on Thursday evening directed all states and territories to make all residents 18 and older eligible for vaccines by May 1.
Pritzker on Friday said he was “confident” Illinois could meet or exceed that goal now that vaccine supply is increasing. The governor said Illinois is now receiving 100,000 vaccine doses per day from the federal government — a figure promised by the Biden administration weeks ago.
“I’m confident that not just by May 1 but maybe even a little bit earlier we could open up to everyone in the state, everyone that’s eligible,” Pritzker said.
But disparities in vaccine distribution persist. According to IPDH data, only 7.9% of Latinos in Illinois and 7.6% of Black Illinoisans have been fully vaccinated — numbers not reflective of Illinois’ demographics, nor the fact that Black and Brown communities have been hit hardest by COVID-19.
Women are also far outpacing men getting vaccines at a nearly 2 to 1 rate.