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Cook County ‘ramping up’ vaccinations, contact tracing faster than federal dose delivery, officials say

Thursday, February 25, 2021
The Daily Line
by Alex Nitkin

Cook County public health officials have vaccinated more than 100,000 people in the past month and plan to significantly scale up operations as the pipeline of new vaccine widens, they told county commissioners Wednesday.

The county has stood up an in-house vaccination system through a combination of mass vaccination sites and targeted distribution at jails and health centers, although some county workers and residents have complained of hiccups and delays. The system is on pace to expand after Thursday, when the county Board of Commissioners approves a measure (21-1547) allowing the county to recoup up to $75 million in additional funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover vaccination costs.

“As the vaccine supply increases, we’re able to bring in even more additional points of distribution,” Cook County Health CEO Israel Rocha said during a committee hearing on Wednesday.

For now, the county operates three so-called “mega-PODs,” including a site at the Tinley Park Convention Center, Rocha said. Nearly 36,000 vaccine doses were distributed at the Tinley Park site as of Feb. 14, with more than 10,000 more administered through smaller “mega-PODs” at Triton College and South Suburban College. County officials by last week had administered 13,840 doses at the Cook County Jail and Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, including nearly 1,100 to detainees.

The county has culled from the Chicago Department of Public Health’s vaccine supply to inoculate people at facilities located inside the city, like the jail and Stroger Hospital, while the rest of its doses come from the state, officials said.

“Our role is to make sure that we have distribution points that are being arranged as quickly as possible, so that as we get increasing number of supply, we are not the stopgap to getting vaccine out there,” Rocha said, adding that the slowly-increasing number of doses coming from the federal government remains the “limiting factor” for vaccine distribution.

“Every week we seem to get a little bit more and a little bit more, and we hope that continues,” he said.

Cook County Department of Public Health co-leader Rachel Rubin said the county is on pace to move to Phase 1C of vaccinations, which includes expanded categories of “essential” workers and adults with underlying health conditions, by “mid-to-late March.” That roughly mirrors Chicago’s timeline, which tentatively sets the next phase to begin on March 29.

City and county health officials have resisted state guidance to begin vaccinating younger adults with health conditions starting this week. Rubin reiterated that stance on Wednesday, saying vaccine appointments for people who are already eligible “get filled within minutes.”

Plus, some county workers in the existing 1A and 1B categories have complained of difficulty getting appointments. Adrienne Alexander, a lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, called into Wednesday’s meeting to say workers have “found it difficult to get information as to employee group designations, vaccine sites and access.”

“We stand ready to partner with Cook County leadership…but that can only happen if the county recognizes the importance of having respected frontline workplace leaders involved in all aspects of the vaccination implementation plan.”

In response to Alexander’s comments, Rubin said “almost all” the county employees in the Phase 1A category who wanted vaccines have received them. She added that the county has come up with a “clear number” of employees in the 1B category who have not gotten shots, and officials “hope as early as next week to start vaccinating that group.”

Finally, Rubin said the county has significantly “ramped up” its contact tracing program, which now employs 240 staffers and interviewed about 48 percent of people who have tested positive for the virus. The figures are sharply higher than they were in November, when the program had 64 full-time staffers who were collectively only able to reach about 10 percent of positive cases.

Related: Recruitment lagging on suburban Cook County contact tracing, but officials tout ‘solid formula’

“Our statistics are getting better,” Rubin said, adding that she hopes the program will reach up to 95 percent COVID patients’ “close contacts…within the next period of weeks, especially if our [case] numbers continue to go down.”

Other COVID-related items set for approval

The board is also on track to approve a host of other grant awards, relief measures and emergency power extensions designed to help get the county through the pandemic.

One resolution (21-1609) paves the way for the county’s Bureau of Economic Development to accept and repurpose nearly $73 million in grant funding provided by the federal government to help tenants who are struggling to pay rent. The U.S. Treasury Department last month made available the $25 billion in emergency rental assistance allocated as part of the funding package passed by Congress in December. It included about $72.8 million for Cook County.

County leaders last year set up multiple programs designed to pass along federal stimulus dollars through its Community Recovery Initiative, including a $20 million rental assistance program launched last August. County economic development Bureau Chief Xochitl Flores said last month that her department is working to learn lessons from the first round of aid in order to improve the rollout of the next round of funding.

The board also plans to delay or reduce a range of fines in response to the pandemic, including with an ordinance (21-1378) halving the cost of video gaming license applications in unincorporated Cook County for the duration of 2021. The legislation was designed “as a relief measure to assist an industry that has been severely impacted by the coronavirus,” according to a spokesperson for county board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Another ordinance (21-1380) set for approval on Thursday would extend the life of 2021 county liquor licenses through June 30, and it cuts the price of new liquor licenses and beer garden licenses through 2021. And another (21-1383) would permanently reduce the “wheel tax” on recreational and commercial trailers, costing the county about $57,000 in estimated annual revenue.

“With businesses facing so many challenges and difficulties created by the coronavirus, suspending these fines and fees is the right thing to do,” according to an information page provided by the Cook County Department of Revenue. “It is our hope these measures provide much-needed relief.”

The board is also scheduled to extend the county’s COVID-19 disaster declaration by an additional month (21-1503), empowering county board Preckwinkle to issue executive orders and procure contracts without board approval until March 31. Similarly, commissioners are set to extend through February an emergency measure (21-1386) giving county Budget Director Annette Guzman authority to personally approve budget transfers of unlimited size in order to coordinate the county’s response to the pandemic. Both would otherwise expire on Feb. 28.

TIF disclosure ordinance, updates to tenant rules

Commissioners are scheduled Thursday to approve an ordinance (21-1048) proposed by county Treasurer Maria Pappas requiring municipalities to deliver line-item reports on how they spend tax-increment financing dollars. Commissioners voted 15-2 to approve the ordinance in committee on Monday, with dissent from Comm. Scott Britton (D-14) and Comm. Frank Aguilar (D-16), who said the requirements could be too burdensome for municipal staffers.

Related: Commissioners approve Pappas-backed ordinance to expose TIF ‘shadow governments’

Britton and Comm. Kevin Morrison (D-15) have also proposed tweaks (21-1721) to county’s Residential Tenant and Landlord Ordinance (20-3562), which passed the board in January after months of heated debate. The updated ordinance broadens the language around some landlord obligations by describing them as “administrative requirements,” instead of “disclosure requirements.” It also requires county Clerk Karen Yarbrough’s office to publicly post a “summary” of the ordinance, instead of a full copy of its language.

Related: Cook county tenant protections on fast-track to approval after unanimous committee vote

The board is set to take up the following other items for consideration:

21-1401 — A $1 million payment to settle a medical malpractice lawsuit brought by Wayne Walker related to Stroger Hospital.

21-1575 — A $578,500 payment to settle a lawsuit brought by Omega Medical Imaging related to a contract dispute with Stroger Hospital.

21-1752 — A resolution allowing the county to partner with the firm Summer to give free counseling to county residents with student loan debt, paid for by a donation from the Joyce Foundation. Preckwinkle touted the initiative during an event Wednesday morning, calling the nation’s growing student loan debt crisis a “racial equity issue.”

21-1708 — Extension through Dec. 31, 2025 of the county’s participation in the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission, a multi-government body charged with blunting the noise impacts of low-flying planes. Chicago similarly extended its participation in the commission last month.

21-0841 — A class 8 property tax incentive for Manas Express Corp to operate a “warehousing, logistics and truck repair” site at 270 E. 167th St. in Harvey.

21-0842 — A class 7(a) property tax incentive for Viktoria Kitsutkin to operate an auto dealership at 401 W. North Ave. in Northlake.

21-0844 — A class 8 property tax incentive for WITS Real Estate Holdings to operate an industrial equipment storage site at 1100 Maryland Ave. in Dolton.

21-1393 — Appointment of John Yonan as bureau chief of the county’s Bureau of Asset Management.

21-1395 — Appointment of Jennifer “Sis” Killen as superintendent of the county’s Department of Transportation and Highways.

21-1706 — Appointment of Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation CEO Joy Aruguete as a member of the Cook County Land Bank Authority Board of Directors.

21-1707, 21-1735, 21-1737, 21-1739 — Reappointment of Franklin Park Mayor Barrett Pedersen, Judith Hamill, Anthony Iosco and Paul Motes II as members of the Cook County Board of Appeals.

Alex Nitkin

Alex Nitkin is The Daily Line’s reporter covering Cook County and Chicago land use policy. He came to TDL from The Real Deal Chicago, where he covered Chicago real estate news. He previously worked at DNAinfo, first as a breaking news reporter, and then as a neighborhood reporter covering the city's Northwest Side. Nitkin graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism with a bachelor’s degree.

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