Older Adults Can Get the Covid-19 Vaccine Now – If They Find Elusive Doses

When Illinois began rolling out Covid-19 vaccines to healthcare workers on December 15, many – especially the state’s seniors — were hopeful that they could soon get the vaccine, too.

A month and a half later, that date is finally here. The state moved from phase 1a to 1b of Covid-19 vaccinations January 25. Those eligible for vaccination now include people 65 and older. However, most of those eligible are having trouble finding any available vaccination appointments, leaving rampant frustration.

During the initial phase 1a, healthcare personnel and long-term care facility residents were vaccinated. Residents of long-term care facilities are especially at risk of severe illness from Covid-19 due to age and underlying medical conditions.

“Nursing home residents are by far the greatest risk of dying from Covid-19. Fifty percent of [Covid-19] deaths have been in nursing home facilities” in Illinois, says Richard Novak, MD, head of the division of infectious diseases at UI Health. Novak led the Moderna vaccine clinical trial at UIC, which enrolled 1,000 participants this past summer and fall.

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) is coordinating the statewide vaccination effort, although the city of Chicago is handled separately through the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH).

As of January 26, the state has administered 773,623 doses of the vaccine, including first and second doses. It reports that 159,996 people have received both doses and are fully vaccinated, which is 1.26% of the state’s population.

Both IDPH an CDPH have extended phase 1b to include those 65 and older, as well as frontline essential workers, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends phase 1b for adults 75 and older.

How can seniors get vaccinated?

In long-term care facilities, residents are receiving vaccines through a federal program with no out-of-pocket costs for the shots. Healthcare providers from Walgreens and CVS visit the facilities and give residents both doses of the vaccine several weeks apart.

In Chicago, the nearly 1 million seniors who do not live in long-term care facilities will have access to the vaccine through CDPH clinics and vaccination teams, outpatient clinics, and pharmacies, as vaccine supply allows, says Candice Robinson, MD, medical director at the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH).

For the Pfizer vaccine, the second dose needs to be given 21 days after the first injection. For the Moderna vaccine, the second dose comes 28 days later. The vaccines are not fully effective until two weeks after the second dose.

The best way to stay on top of the supply is to check the IDPH or CDPH website, as well as talking with your primary healthcare provider. You can also register through private clinics including Oak Street Health and Innovative Care (though the website has been frequently failing to load since January 25 due to traffic), as well as Walgreens and Jewel-Osco. An interactive state map lists vaccination locations, though it is hard to find any available appointments.

When it’s time for seniors to receive their vaccine, “CDPH will engage seniors through messaging from their healthcare providers, media, and community vaccine messengers,” Robinson says.

DuPage Medical Group, which serves about 1 million patients throughout the west and southwest suburbs, is using electronic medical records to determine which seniors in its system qualify for vaccination at each phase. Vaccines will be available at two of the group’s outpatient facilities in DuPage County.

“We’re requiring all of our physicians, associates, and patients to have a [MyChart account], which allows us to share timely information about vaccine availability, post-vaccination symptom questionnaires, and more,” says Mathew Philip, MD, DuPage Medical Group medical director of clinical innovation and internal medicine physician at BreakThrough Care Center.

“Our outpatient setting allows us to administer the vaccine in a safe environment, while also helping to reduce the burden on local hospitals, so they can focus on caring for Covid patients,” Philip says.

Many older adults are anxiously awaiting their turn to get vaccinated.

So is the case for 73-year-old Lincoln Park resident Michael Donaghue, who lives with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of lung diseases that block airflow and cause breathing difficulties. He also underwent coronary bypass surgery in 1999.

“I trust the science and am enthused about possibly eventually coming to the end of this nightmare. The distribution challenge is real, and I strongly suspect there will be incidents of goof-ups. But we have to trust the supply chain and be patient,” Donaghue says.

He hopes to consult with his physician at his regularly scheduled appointment at Northwestern Memorial Hospital on February 1.

By receiving the vaccine, Donaghue believes he’ll not only help himself, but society as a whole.

“The vaccine should be of an enormous help to others and society,” he says. “Hopefully, it can help us get back to normal, though we still have to be careful until everyone is vaccinated.”

Older adults at risk

The vaccines will confer protection for the state’s older adults, a population that is more vulnerable to severe illness if they’re infected with the coronavirus.

“[All seniors] are at increased risk of having severe disease and death from Covid-19, so it’s important that they be protected,” Novak says. “Seniors are at greatest risk. They have the highest percentage of cases that lead to severe disease and death.”

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been shown to be 95% and 94% respectively effective in reducing the risk of severe Covid-19 infection.

“The purpose of vaccine is to prevent people from developing disease,” Novak says. “If they do get disease, [the vaccine] makes it milder so they’re less likely to need hospitalization and die from it.”

In the past, vaccines typically have been made from a weakened form of a virus. Instead, the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines are mRNA vaccines. These vaccines tell the cells to make a harmless piece of protein that triggers the body to produce an immune response and antibodies to the coronavirus. Think of the vaccine as a set of instructions for your cells on how to respond if they see Covid-19 in your system.

While some people are hesitant to get a newly developed vaccine, research shows the vaccines can safely confer protection against Covid-19, a disease that can cause unpredictable long-term effects, such as stroke, heart attack, and irreversible lung injury.

“Not everyone gets all of that, but we don’t know the full extent of the long-term consequences. So you have to weigh taking a vaccine that is only transiently in your body with having a virus that hangs around for a while and causes a lot of damage,” Novak says.

Novak stresses that in order to end the pandemic, as many people as possible age 16 and up need to be vaccinated to prevent ongoing transmission and achieve 70% immunity of the entire population.

Until the country gets to that point, people will need to continue wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and frequently washing hands, even if they have received the vaccine.

Vaccinating older adults and those with underlying conditions before the general population will take the pressure off of the healthcare system.

“And this will help society because it will keep the hospitals from filling up, so that if other people are sick, we can take care of them,” Novak says.

For the latest on the vaccination rollout in Illinois, visit dph.illinois.gov/covid19/vaccine-faq and Chicago.gov/COVIDVax. Older adults who don’t use the internet can also call their primary care doctor for updated information.

Covid-19 Vaccine Phases in Illinois

Current vaccination phases, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. These categories are subject to change.

Phase 1a:

  • Healthcare personnel and long-term care facility residents and staff

Phase 1b: 

  • People age 65 and older
  • Frontline essential workers:
  • First responders (fire, police, security)
  • Corrections officers and inmates
  • Food and agriculture workers
  • U.S. postal service workers
  • Manufacturing workers
  • Grocery store workers
  • Public transit workers
  • Educators (teachers, support staff, day care workers)
  • Shelter staff
  • Pregnant people

Phase 1c:

  • People age 16 to 64 with high-risk medical conditions and other essential workers

Phase 2:

  • General public age 16 to 64


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