CHICAGO (WLS) -- The first shipments of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine have arrived in Illinois. Deliveries are expected at various hospitals and other cold-storage facilities between now and Wednesday.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot tweeted photos of the vaccine's arrival in Chicago late Monday night. The first healthcare workers in the city of Chicago will get vaccinated Tuesday morning at Loretto Hospital on the city's West Side, officials said.
The 50 Illinois counties with the highest COVID death rates per capita are the priority in this initial vaccine shipment. That includes suburban Cook County, where the first batch of more than 20,000 doses is expected to arrive this week.
"It is my sincere hope that today marks the moment where we flag Tuesday, December 14th as the beginning of the end," Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle said.
For now, it appears the first vaccinations will take place both in suburban Cook County and at the county's two public hospitals on Wednesday. The vaccines will be split between 15 hospitals and will go to health care workers and people living in assisted care facilities.
Cook County health officials said doses will be doled out to suburban hospitals based on their number of essential personnel and how badly COVID-19 has impacted their staff and patients.
"We need to have as many people vaccinated as possible," said Dr. Rachel Rubin, Cook County Dept. of Public Health. "70% is the absolute minimum."
Vaccine shipments are going directly to the hospitals that will be administering them, but also to the county's ultra-cold storage facilities, where they will hold the surplus until hospitals are ready for it.
Nearly 3,000 people have died from COVID-19 in suburban Cook County alone. With a population of around 2.5 million - many of them lower income - developing a plan to deploy to the community at large is something the health department is already working on, even as for now, they are focused on first inoculating as many of their health care workers as are willing.
"We'll give 20,000 workers their first dose. It's not enough to cover 1a. It's not enough to cover all of the health care workers in the hospitals in 1a," said Dr. Kiran Joshi, with Cook County Dept. of Public Health. "We anticipate it's going to be at least 4 to 5 weeks before we get through that first hospital-based wave."
And, while there is no concrete timeline for when vaccinations will be available for the community at large in Cook County, health officials say their priority is getting to those lower income areas, and identifying potential vaccination sites that are of easy access to most people.
"Whether it's the YMCA or whether it's the local school because they understand that it is the center of the community...we are in the process of identifying certain places where we would be able to set up vaccination sites especially on the south and west suburban area," Dr. Rubin said.
In addition to those 20,000 doses, both of the county hospitals located in Chicago - Stroger and Provident - will receive 1,000 doses this week. Vaccinations of employees there start Wednesday and conclude on December 24.
The health department in north suburban Lake County is waiting on their first shipment of 6,000 doses that will be distributed to six hospitals.
"What we're doing is recommending to them that they really concentrate on those individuals that work in the ICUs: individuals like doctors and nurses, medical assistants," said Mark Pfister, executive director of the Lake County Health Dept.
The goal is to get those workers inoculated within five days. That won't cover even every healthcare employee, but more shipments should be arriving every week.
Lake County is already preparing for when vaccines are available to the general public, perhaps by early spring.
"We've had over 100,000 people already register on our website to get the vaccine, so that is great news for us," Pfister said. "Our goal is 80% of our population, which is 560,000 people."
Pfizer began shipping the vaccine from its Kalamazoo, Michigan plant Sunday morning, less than 48 hours after the FDA granted emergency use authorization.
"I'm moved by the impact of science, I'm moved by the impact that we can have for patients around the world," Mike McDermott, President of Global Supply at Pfizer. "I think this vaccine today gives us the promise and the light at the end of that tunnel."
The precious cargo was then loaded onto planes in Grand Rapids for nationwide transport. Tracking and security of the vaccine is at the top of mind. UPS planes equipped with special ultra-cold freezers will take the vaccines across the country.
In the air, the FAA is giving priority clearance for planes carrying the shipments. On the road, the shipments have escorts.
"Pfizer is putting a tracking device on every package, but FedEx also puts their own. So [there is] 2-3 layers of tracking that is taking place," said Northwestern University Logistics Systems Expert Hani Mahmassani. "You want to know where everything is and you want to be able to account for it."
Mahmassani said there will be unique challenges ahead for the distribution, stressing that problems could come post shipment.
"The local handling aspect is where I am much more concerned about," Mahmassani said. "The more hands that are touching it, the more things that can go wrong."
Federal officials said the shipments are being staggered, arriving at 145 distribution centers Monday, 425 on Tuesday and the remaining 66 on Wednesday.
Once out of the shipping container, every second counts. Within 90 seconds the vaccine needs to be moved into those special freezers or put in a standard refrigerator to thaw, where it can stay for up to five days.
When it's out of the refrigerator, a vial is quickly diluted into five doses that must be injected within two hours or it spoils. The first doses are expected to be administered Monday.
Mahmassani said he's cautiously optimistic.
"It seems to be going according to plan at this point," he said.
With health care workers and those in nursing homes at the top of the list to receive vaccinations, it may be several months before they're available to the community at large. Much remains to be worked out about how that will happen.
Some are already pushing for city and state officials to widen their vaccination campaign beyond health care facilities, worried that in a city where 3 out of 10 people don't have access to a vehicle, many might be left out in the cold.
"We have DFSS facilities. We have warming centers. We have park districts, we have churches, we have the ability to make sure that everybody in the City of Chicago has access to vaccination," said Ald. Byron Lopez.
Meanwhile, the city's Department of Public Health remains deliberately vague, saying they are prepared to accept, store and distribute vaccine doses when they arrive, but not saying exactly when that will happen --only that it will be in the next couple of days.
The FDA reiterated that it has sees the potential benefits of the vaccine outweighing potential risks.
An independent panel also advised the CDC and recommended that people 16 and older be vaccinated.
Experts said they still do not know if someone who is vaccinated can still spread COVID-19.