Often overshadowed by the metropolis to its northeast, Peoria outshines Chicago and much of Illinois when it comes to coronavirus vaccinations.
Peoria County tops all 102 Illinois counties in vaccinating its most vulnerable residents. As of early March, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported that 84% of county residents 65 or older had received a first dose, double the rate for Chicago and its county seat, Cook County. Some 51% of Peoria seniors had been fully vaccinated as of that date, well above the statewide rate of 20%.
Surprised? So was Monica Hendrickson, public health administrator of the Peoria County Health Department, at a Feb. 24 event when Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that “if Peoria County were a state, it would be No. 2 in the nation for total doses administered per 100,000 residents.”
“I’m very happy I had a face mask on, on live TV,” Hendrickson said. “Otherwise, my shock would be more expressive.”
Planning, partnership, outreach and centralization appear to be key factors boosting vaccination rates in Peoria and neighboring counties. Most patients are within 15 miles of major healthcare providers. One local county was designated as a regional vaccine distribution site, while another local health department has strong ties to large local hospitals.
“They have all of the pieces: supply, great partnerships, great efficiency in how to register people. It was centralized,” said Courtney Hedderman, associate state director of advocacy and outreach at AARP Illinois.
Chicago’s and suburban Cook County’s total populations are each more than 13 times the size of Peoria, and more diverse, making their rollouts more complex, health officials say. Dr. Kiran Joshi, co-lead of the Cook County Department of Public Health, added that in suburban Cook, hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers, first responders and essential workers outnumbered seniors in the first phases of the vaccine rollout. Seniors got priority bookings at a mass vaccination site, however, and the city of Chicago declared March as “Senior Month,” as part of a push to catch up on vaccinations among that population.
While larger jurisdictions like Chicago and Cook County had to coordinate vaccination campaigns with multiple providers, community groups and government-run sites, Peoria relied on just a few trusted local organizations with broad reach.
Two big hospitals—OSF and UnityPoint—and Heartland Health Center, a federally qualified health center, are nearby. So when health officials convened the three and crunched patient data, they found roughly 90% of the county’s seniors were already in their systems.
Each had different attack plans for getting patients signed up, and Hendrickson’s team pushed doses to all three to accelerate vaccinations. OSF and UnityPoint also enlisted independent physicians—who are often left out of the loop elsewhere in Illinois—reaching out to ask for lists of patients they could get booked for shots.
“As you can imagine with two large healthcare entities, we’re fairly competitive with each other,” says Dr. John Miller, vice president of medical affairs at UnityPoint Health, noting the chain’s downtown Peoria hospital stands just across the highway from OSF St. Francis Medical Center. “But our key to success was cooperation, not competitiveness.”
UnityPoint set up a call center to contact patients. At one facility in downtown Peoria, staffers from UnityPoint primary-care clinics can jab up to 700 people per day, Miller said. OSF can inoculate a similar number at one of its clinics. Both facilities are accessible by bus and don’t have stairs for seniors to climb.
OSF ranked their oldest patients and reached out first to those with the biggest health risks, booking them through an electronic system.
AARP’s Hedderman said two of the biggest challenges for Illinois counties have been managing public expectations about shot availability and ensuring equitable distribution of vaccines.
Peoria is working on the latter. Hendrickson called on not-for-profit ambulance service Advanced Medical Transport to bring shots directly to people not connected to a health center.
“We have the ability to take the show on the road,” said Josh Bradshaw, AMT’s community resource manager. AMT sends vaccine strike teams to homeless shelters, affordable housing buildings and senior-living facilities. The service expects to have fully vaccinated 1,420 people by the end of March.
This article originally appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business, a sister publication to Modern Healthcare.