By Jonah Meadows
NORTHFIELD, IL — A first-of-its-kind vaccination site run by local firefighters and paramedics has opened at New Trier High School. Local officials hope the pilot program can be replicated as more doses of COVID-19 vaccines become available for distribution.
The point of distribution, or POD, in the gymnasium of New Trier's west campus administered about 500 doses of vaccine Wednesday through an intergovernmental partnership between the school district, the county and Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, or MABAS, Division 3. Tom Burke, Northfield's assistant fire chief and MABAS Division 3 president, said the partnership was the result of a lot of extensive discussions, long nights and countless Zoom meetings. But he knew all along they would be able to pull it off.
"This is what we do," Burke said. "This is what the fire service does. This is what the police service does. We come together. Anytime there's an emergency, anytime there's a problem, we're here to fix it. We try the best we can."
The assistant chief said he believed the pilot program could take off across Illinois with the help of the existing statewide MABAS network of fire and rescue personnel.
"It's time to reach out to the first responders and let us do what we're supposed to be doing. This is a good thing," he said. "This is what we need to do, and hopefully we can get ahead of the pandemic going on here."
Winnetka Fire Department Chief Alan Berkowsky pushed county officials to collaborate with rescue personnel to get shots into arms.
"I just want to say this is the epitome of a partnership. You got 11 communities, you got a school district, you got a Cook County Health Department, and somehow we're able to gel all this into one event," he said. "These are all municipal employees, paramedics doing the vaccination, we got support from MABAS Illinois. It's really an incredible model that I believe can be replicated across Cook County, across Illinois and across the United States as a structure for rolling out vaccination when the vaccination chain becomes much more robust."
Jabs at the site will be initially limited to first responders, school personnel and front-line essential workers in the Phase 1a and Phase 1b priority groups. But local officials hope that it will eventually be able to accommodate everyone seeking to be vaccinated.
"We appreciate the hope and optimism that vaccination sites such as this one represent," said New Trier High School Superintendent Paul Sally. "As the first vaccine site staffed by paramedics, we hope it serves as one model for expansion throughout the county and New Trier is very proud to be a part of it."
Dr. Kiran Joshi, co-lead of the Cook County Department of Public Health, said there was significant hesitancy among the 2.5 million residents of the Cook County suburbs in both receiving vaccines and trusting the government.
"But we also know that many who are hesitant are willing to get vaccinated if they see others safely receiving their doses," he said. "As if first responders and teachers weren't our heroes already, they're playing a critical leadership role at this site by demonstrating the safety of these vaccines."
Cook County Health Chief Executive Officer Israel Rocha said he was grateful for efforts by local educators to make the "learning POD" a reality. He said the team was committed to sharing the model with other departments throughout the country. "I think when you bring EMS providers or fire and rescue providers and our educators under one roof, with one common goal of helping to expand, and to bring assistance to the people who need it, that's always a good thing." Rocha said.
While vaccine supplies have been limited so far, Rocha said new distribution locations were opening every week.
"So you've been seeing that progress, in that we started with one large site, then we had our clinics, then we were able to open a large POD site, now we have several little programs that are getting started," he said.
Cook County Commissioner Scott Britton is a former village and school board member from Glenview who, along with local village officials, strongly advocated for the New Trier POD. He said Berkowsky had, during one of their many conversations, likened coronavirus vaccination efforts to a war.
"And that war is being fought, basically, with one hand behind our backs," Britton said. "Because we have firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, who are the exact people you want to be able to be on the front lines of providing these vaccines, and they're enthusiastic about doing it. I can't tell you the number of times they've said, 'If we need to send some somebody down to the western suburbs, or the southern suburbs we will do that. Our people will go there, and they will take care of our Cook County residents.'
"And it has made me think more and more about how lucky we are, particularly here in the northern suburbs, to have the men and women of our departments who are willing to step up and do what's necessary," he said. "I still can't believe we actually pulled this off."