By Jonah Meadows
NORTHFIELD, IL — The New Trier High School board unanimously approved a deal with the Cook County Department of Public Health to use its west campus as a mass vaccination site.
According to the site use agreement on the consent agenda for approval at Tuesday evening's school board meeting, county officials will use the main gym, first-floor bathrooms and concession stand at New Trier's Northfield campus for "clinical activities," including administering vaccinations, record-keeping and monitoring for adverse events.
Cook County Commissioner Scott Britton told the Arlington Heights Journal that vaccines could be administered to front-line essential workers at the site as soon as Feb. 24. The idea was the result of relentless advocacy by firefighters from North Shore communities — Division 3 of the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, or MABAS, Britton told the newspaper.
For at least the past six weeks, leaders of fire departments in several north Cook County villages have been urging county officials to allow firefighter paramedics to assist the Cook County Department of Public Health. On Jan. 7, fire officials from Lincolnwood, Northfield, Wilmette and Winnetka joined the president of MABAS Division 3 and the CEO of MABAS Illinois in signing a joint letter to the leadership of the Cook County Department of Public Health imploring county officials to accept an offer of help with the vaccination process.
"One lesson we should remember from the onset of the pandemic was that the process of establishing testing for COVID-19 was a disaster at a very critical juncture of the pandemic," it said. "In hindsight, we were not prepared for the vast number of people needing to be tested. Thus, it is important to utilize all the resources available in Cook County to avoid a similar outcome with the vaccination."
Illinois fire departments are a national model for disaster response, and existing command structures and resources could help the county administer vaccines in a "safe, fast and equitable" way, according to the letter.
"Unfortunately, relying solely on commercial pharmacies, private physicians and other commercial venues will overwhelm the system, cause unnecessary delays, and likely lead to many individuals not even realizing they are eligible for the vaccine and how they should go about obtaining one," the fire officials said. "As of now, the onus has been placed on individuals in Phases 1B and 1C to seek out the vaccine themselves; we are volunteering to take on that responsibility as best we can to directly reach our most vulnerable residents and ensure as many individuals as possible are vaccinated."
The letter proposed going directly to local schools to vaccinate teachers and setting up clinics in buildings with large numbers of senior and those identified as affordable housing, as well as recommending distribution sites run in local municipal buildings.
On Jan. 27, the co-leaders of Cook County Department of Public Health, Dr. Rachel Rubin and Dr. Kiran Joshi, responded to the fire chiefs' letter. It said employees of the Cook County Department of Emergency Management & Regional Security — formerly known as the Cook County Department of Homeland Security — had met with MABAS officials and valued the support of local governments and their fire departments.
But three weeks after the offer, county officials still had nothing to announce.
"Extensive coordination and collaboration with the resource hospitals, EMS Directors, MABAS, and the respective fire departments are required because CCDPH is expected to maintain vaccine oversight," Rubin and Joshi said in the Jan. 27 response. "We are currently working through all legal and operational processes." MABAS Division 3 President Tom Burke, assistant chief of the Northfield Fire Department, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday about the organization's interaction with county officials. On Jan. 29, Kevin Jauch, the regional superintendent for north Cook County, sent a letter to all superintendents of school district and special education cooperatives.
Jauch said county public health officials said in a meeting with suburban regional superintendents that they were unable to guarantee that any area high schools offered by school districts would be used for vaccination sites. Jauch noted county officials had recently conducted a site visit at a south suburban high school.
"I have been told that the site visit was productive, but the location has not been approved. I am hoping that is a good sign for high school usage, but I am not sure if that bodes well for us in North Cook," Jauch said.
"I know that this is frustrating and that you are getting pressure from your boards, unions and communities."
Six weeks after the MABAS request, it appears Cook County public health officials have managed to put together a boilerplate memorandum of understanding suitable for the site use agreement with New Trier and, potentially, other public bodies in the future.
The Northfield vaccination site is set to be staffed by firefighters, police officers and other municipal staff from the 17 departments that make up MABAS Division 3, Britton told the Journal.
Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who Britton said assisted with the effort, declined to comment about his role in the effort ahead of the school board vote.
Part of the deal includes a clause that requires the organization hosting vaccination sites to notify county officials of any media inquiries. "[A]ny communication to the media and/or public regarding this Agreement and the activities to be performed pursuant to this Agreement shall be made by the [Cook County Health] Chief Communications and Marketing Officer," it says.
New Trier Township High School District 203 board members unanimously approved the agreement as part of the consent agenda of Tuesday's meeting. Kate Hedlin, communications manager for Cook County Health, said in a statement after the agreement was approved that county health officials anticipated partnering with "agencies and organizations" to open "targeted" point of distribution, or POD, vaccination clinics.
"We are working with officials in the northern suburbs to open a POD for educators and first responders in the coming weeks," Heflin said, "pending available vaccine supply."