It was reopening day at a greater Chicago mass vaccination site Tuesday, as local health officials bring previously closed locations back online to meet renewed demand during the omicron surge.
Cook County closed the last of its six suburban mass vaccination sites six months ago due to declining demand and as vaccine administrations shifted more to pharmacies and doctors' offices. But with renewed interest in recent weeks, county officials have been encouraged to reopen several of the sites operated by Cook County Health.
"With the surge in omicron, we've actually seen an increase in interest in, particularly, boosters," Dr. Gregory Huhn, Cook County Health’s vaccine coordinator and an infectious disease physician, told ABC News. "We believed that we would need this type of opportunity again to really meet that demand, as people recognize the importance of vaccination in combating against omicron."
About 80% of Cook County residents have received at least one vaccine dose, while 40% of those eligible have gotten their booster, Huhn said.
A majority -- around 75% -- of Cook County Health's patients hospitalized due to COVID-19 are unvaccinated, and that rate is higher for those in the intensive care unit and on ventilators, according to Huhn.
"We will have breakthrough infections, we know that," Huhn said. "But with the booster, we're able to generate enough antibodies to protect people against the progression of their infection and disease, to keep them out of the hospital and keep them from dying."
On Tuesday, the first of three mass vaccination sites reopening across the county started administering doses again. There were a couple hundred appointments scheduled, and more walk-ins.
Stephen Gallardo showed up to the Forest Park site after trying more than a week to get his booster elsewhere, he told Chicago ABC station WLS. "Most places are booked for a while," he told the station.
The other two sites are scheduled to open Thursday and Saturday, with all three offering weekend hours.
Local leaders are hoping the weekends will draw out residents who have not yet gotten their first dose.
"We know that certain populations have not availed themselves of the vaccines, so what we hope to see is church congregations coming on Sundays to get vaccines here in Forest Park," Forest Park Mayor Rory Hoskins told reporters Tuesday.
All three sites are in former big-box stores, which have provided a large amount of open space to easily maneuver patients from station to station, Huhn said.
"We find that this type of environment is really highly conducive to our vaccine operations and efficiency," he said.
When the sites first opened nearly a year ago, they were partially staffed by members of the National Guard. Now, they're relying on both Cook County Health administrators and support from nursing agencies.
The clinics will run as long as there is demand.
"We have adequate vaccine supply, we have the staff," Huhn said. "We really want to make it easy and accessible for everybody to get the vaccine that they need."