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Vaccine’s unbalanced rollout: Few South, West side residents get COVID shots so far

The trend in the first weeks of vaccine distribution points to a challenge for Mayor Lightfoot and public health officials who want to emphasize racial equity throughout the process.

Pharmacy resident Rona Jin prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and draws doses from the vial in preparation for the first round of vaccinations Thursday at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Pharmacy resident Rona Jin prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and draws doses from the vial in preparation for the first round of vaccinations earlier this month at Mount Sinai Hospital in North Lawndale. Health care workers who live on the North Side received far more shots than those who live on the South or West sides.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Doctors, nurses and other health care workers who live near downtown or on the North Side stepped forward in large numbers to get vaccinated for COVID-19, while a smaller number of the city’s South Side and West Side residents got the shots.

The findings, from city data for the first 12 days of vaccinations along with census information showing where health care workers live, point to a trend of Chicago doctors living in more affluent areas showing up in sizable numbers to get inoculated while technicians and other lower-paid health care workers living in predominantly Black and Latino communities did not get the shots.

The numbers signal the challenge ahead for Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago public health officials who have said they expect resistance from minority residents who may distrust the vaccination process. Health care workers are the first in line to receive the shots, and city officials hope Black and Latino nurses, doctors and others will set the example for the broader population in communities of color.

“This is exactly the challenge,” Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s public health chief, said in an interview. “Our whole plan here in Chicago is really about equity, and it’s about recognizing there is a lot of extra work that needs to go in to see a map that shows equitable vaccine uptake.”

Arwady said she was “not at all surprised this is how the very first week of data look” but added, “I am confident that it will improve as more vaccine is available both within hospitals, but, importantly, when we move beyond hospitals.”

A large concentration of health care workers living in the whitest, wealthiest neighborhoods in Chicago were vaccinated between Dec. 15 and 26, according to city data. There were 20,091 vaccinations of Chicago residents in total.

The largest numbers were in ZIP codes that include Near North Side, Lake View, Lincoln Park, South Loop and Wicker Park.

The 60611 ZIP code had the most number of vaccinated people with 1,297. The Near North Side ZIP code is more than 70% white, with a median income of almost $107,000, and includes the Magnificent Mile and Streeterville.

The ZIP code is among those in the city with the highest number of doctors and physicians, according to a city analysis of census data.

Health care workers living just West and South of the Loop and on the North Side made up the next largest concentration of vaccinations. Conversely, with the exception of Hyde Park, South and West side ZIP codes showed the lowest numbers.

The far South Side ZIP code 60628 (which includes Roseland) showed only 97 residents were vaccinated. The West Side ZIP codes 60629 (West Lawn and Chicago Lawn) and 60639 (Belmont Cragin) are the hardest-hit areas in the city for virus infections. Only 401 health care workers living in these two areas were vaccinated by the middle of last week.

The city’s largest hospitals are administering most of the shots, thousands at each of the biggest systems, and representatives from several, including Loyola Medicine, Rush University Medical Center and University of Chicago, said they offered vaccines to frontline workers that include doctors, nurses and a number of other workers, including respiratory therapists, technicians and paramedics. None of the hospitals broke down which type of workers got the shots.

Arwady said she heard from hospitals that many doctors and nurses were eager to be the first to be inoculated, but city health officials are pressing for widespread vaccinations.

“We said right from the beginning, ‘Please do not just focus on your doctors and nurses,’” Arwady said. “Focus on everybody who’s in COVID wards and in the ICU and the emergency department.”

Suspicions about medical research and vaccines persist among Black and Latino residents, said Dr. Marina Del Rios, director of Social Emergency Medicine at University of Illinois Health.

“There’s a lot of mistrust that has to be addressed even among people in the health care field,” Del Rios said. “The question is what are hospitals doing to educate their own staff?”

Del Rios was the first person in Chicago to receive the vaccine, which she said was at the invitation of the city as part of a public event to show a diverse group of health care workers receiving the shot.

A nurse shows a container of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine after it was used to vaccinate the first five staff members at Roseland Community Hospital on Dec. 17, 2020.
A nurse shows a container of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine after it was used to vaccinate the first five staff members at Roseland Community Hospital on Dec. 17, 2020.
Scott Olson/Getty

On the Far South Side, Roseland Community Hospital vaccinated about 50 workers by the middle of last week — ranging from doctors to housekeeping employees — each day since Dec. 19, said Elio Montenegro, an administrator at the hospital. Most workers want the vaccine, but some are “taking a wait-and-see attitude,” Montenegro said.

At Sinai Health System, which includes Mount Sinai Hospital in the North Lawndale area, about 800 workers at its hospitals and clinics were vaccinated, said Tejal Patel, the associate director of inpatient pharmacy and respiratory services.

Patel said some concerns about the vaccine have been alleviated by pharmacists who have met with workers to answer questions about it.

David Ernesto Munar, the president and CEO of Howard Brown Health, said it will be important to follow data on vaccinations in the coming weeks.

“It will be really important for the city to continue to move forward with the vaccination with a lens on equity and a recognition that Black and Brown communities continue to be underserved and need to be a priority,” Munar said

Contributing: Caroline Hurley

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health and Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality are made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.