IL COVID vaccine expansion delay leaves high-risk transplant patients without access

CHICAGO (WLS) -- There are hold-ups in getting the COVID vaccine for high-risk and transplant patients in Illinois under the age of 65.

While Governor JB Pritzker said many high-risk and transplant patients, regardless of age, will be able to get on the Group 1B list for the vaccine by Thursday, whether they can actually get a shot could all depend on where they live in the state.

"I had a heart transplant about 18 months ago and have pretty much been relegated to being at home," Scott Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg, 59, said he lives in fear of getting COVID-19 as he recovers from surgery. He relies on his family to bring him groceries as he waits to be eligible for the vaccine.

"Even pre-COVID, heart transplant recipients are immunosuppressed in that we take daily medication to keep our immune system from attacking what our body thinks is a foreign object," Rosenberg explained.

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Despite his condition, Rosenberg is not in category 1A or even category 1B. Recently, Gov. Pritzker expanded the 1B category to include more people, including transplant recipients. However, Rosenberg will not benefit because he lives in Cook County, one of several counties which are not moving forward with expansion due to limited supply of vaccine.

"I just, I try not to think of myself, I'm also trying to think of others who may be in their teens, 20s, 30s who are organ transplant recipients, who are in the same situation I have been medically, but maybe don't have the ability to have other people help them; they're alone," Rosenberg said. "They need to go out into the world and they are susceptible to this terrible disease."

Rosenberg is getting care at Loyola Medicine. The hospital declined to be interviewed for this story, but told the ABC7 I-Team, they are following health department and public health guidelines and "...[recognize] the need for all those in high-risk groups to receive the COVID vaccine."

An infectious disease expert who is not associated with Rosenberg's case said, in general, transplant recipients are at higher risk of bad outcomes from COVID-19.

"We know a little bit more about the virus that in patients who have undergone transplantation such as lung liver, kidney heart, or have undergone a bone marrow transplantation," said Faiqa Alam Cheema, MD, who is the Director of Transplant Infectious Disease Program at Hartford Healthcare in Connecticut. "We're learning that these people if they get infected with the virus, there are 80% more likely to get admitted to the hospital; 30% more likely to end up in the intensive care unit, and to be on the breathing machine; and we're learning that their mortality is quite high."

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Cheema said she understands the overall supply and demand problem, but feels strongly that transplant patients and others in the highest risk categories should be prioritized.

"I just think that people who are at a higher risk, you know, whether they're undergoing transplantation, or they're undergoing active chemotherapy for cancer, they should be included in the 1B group for accessibility to vaccines," she said. "We know that they have a weakened immune system. They have coexisting medical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart conditions and lung conditions."

Vaccine priority is determined by states. Texas and New York had placed transplant patients in 1B. In Pennsylvania, they are given the highest priority, 1A.

"I certainly understand that there prioritizations that needs to be made," Rosenberg said. "You know, but I would think that people who are at extremely high risk, that the priority would be given to those who are not just susceptible of getting COVID, but dying of COVID. That's really the prioritization in my, in my opinion."

Currently, the 1B expansions include several different high-risk categories, which will double the number of people eligible for the vaccine.
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