Last June, community organizers worked with Chicago city officials to host a COVID-19 vaccination event in Englewood.
It drew more than 100 people. But the city workers providing the shots showed up two hours late. By then, many who’d been waiting gave up and left, said Justin Morgan, the operations director for Something Good in Englewood, one of the organizers.
“The city of Chicago needs to do a better job getting the vaccine to the people of Englewood,” said Morgan, whose group also hosted a vaccination drive before Thanksgiving with the help of another nonprofit and health clinic and another one Friday.
Chicago health officials don’t dispute his assessment.
Morgan’s organization is among community groups that have been organizing mass inoculations on the South Side and the West Side, where the risks of infection are higher because of the high number of unvaccinated residents.
As North Side neighborhoods have reached fully vaccinated rates approaching 80%, some South Side ZIP codes still show fewer than half of residents having gotten their first shots. That’s an alarming statistic, particularly with another wave of infections expected soon and the highly transmissible omicron variant raising fears of more deaths and hospitalizations.
In September, Mayor Lori Lightfoot came to Englewood to announce a plan to get more Chicagoans vaccinated by year’s end, aiming to get at least one shot — which doesn’t even fully protect against the virus — in the arms of 77% of all city residents 12 and older.
But Englewood hasn’t reached anything close to that level of immunization: Only 42% of all residents in Englewood’s 60621 ZIP code are fully vaccinated, leaving the community especially vulnerable.
City officials say they’ve been relying more and more on community organizations like Something Good in Englewood to plan, promote and put on vaccine drives.
Since the first wave of COVID shots were offered a year ago, white Chicagoans have gotten vaccinated in far greater numbers than people of color who’ve been bearing the brunt of hospitalizations and deaths in communities in which fewer people have been inoculated.
Vaccine hesitancy surely plays a part. But the full explanation for the low vaccination rate in Englewood is complex. It involves a range of factors, among them poor access to health care, a history of government neglect, a flood of misinformation, difficulty in scheduling and getting shots and a need for trusted people in the community to provide assurances that the vaccine is safe and necessary.
Almost 20% of Englewood residents have no government or private insurance. And the community has high rates of disease such as diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure that put people living there at greater risk of severe illness or death if they’re infected with coronavirus.
For six years, Morgan’s organization has had a strong presence in the community, promoting childhood development, adult learning, job training, health and wellness and other causes. It’s been joined by other community groups that work on issues including violence-reduction and early childhood development in the vaccination effort.
“Englewoodians have been in a pandemic before this pandemic,” Morgan said.
“No one is going to listen to you unless you’re a trusted messenger,” said Ciara Stanton, community engagement manager for the nonprofit Chicagoland Vaccine Partnership, which coordinates funding for dozens of community groups promoting and hosting mass vaccinations. “They do trust the organization that has been feeding the community for 10 to 15 years.”
That’s particularly important in Englewood, Stanton said, where a history of disinvestment and poor access to health care have eroded trust in government.
“Just knocking on someone’s door and giving them a pamphlet is not going to get them to trust you,” Stanton said.
So Something Good in Englewood’s leaders decided to champion COVID vaccinations as it hosted a turkey giveaway before Thanksgiving with the Chicago Family Health Center at the Alpha Temple Baptist Church.
Tina Lynn was there, filling out the paperwork for her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine along with her 12-year-old daughter Carnisha, who sat there, anxiously twisting her hands in the folds of her hoodie.
“Carnisha is shaking in her boots,” Lynn said. “I am, too, though.”
It took months for Lynn, 29, and her daughter to decide to be vaccinated.
“I was hesitant for the same reason as Carnisha,” she said. “I didn’t know what type of medicine the vaccine was using or what the side effects was gonna be.”
Then, Carnisha’s school, Andrew Carnegie Elementary School, experienced an outbreak and moved to remote learning. That was the turning point. With a 1-year-old baby at home, too — too young for the vaccine but old enough to contract the potentially deadly illness — mother and daughter made the decision together to get vaccinated.
“We have a good support system here with Something Good,” Lynn said, adding that she felt “grateful” to have the group’s support.
That didn’t prevent Carnisha from starting to cry as she approached the chair for her shot, telling her mother she was scared.
Lynn and the vaccine administrators tried to comfort her. They promised it wouldn’t hurt and that she would be OK.
“You’d rather be safe than sorry, daughter,” Lynn told her, wrapping her arms around her.
For weeks, Carnisha’s school nurse and gym coach had been saying the same thing, hoping to encourage her and her classmates to get vaccinated.
Lynn said city officials could do a better job of spreading awareness and explaining just what’s in the vaccines and what the shots entail for people who are still hesitant.
“On the news, when you see another person getting a shot, it still doesn’t do any justice for you,” she said. “Because it’s, like, what works for them might not work for me.”
Lynn said a lot of people might not know exactly how the vaccines help — but have heard about potential side effects such as the rare blood clot disorder associated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that prompted the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend Thursday that people get other COVID vaccines instead when possible.
Even with her concerns, Lynn cheered when she got her shot. And she pumped her fists excitedly when she was handed her vaccine card.
She said that now, when a business asks for proof of vaccination, she’ll feel proud and “puff my chest out” as she hands it over for inspection.
The day that she and her daughter got their vaccinations, Something Good in Englewood “engaged” 86 people and administered 22 shots. More people came for the turkeys: About 200 were given away.
At the group’s June event, 33 people got shots. Morgan said he thinks at least twice that number would have if the city delivered the vaccines on time.
According to Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s public health commissioner, about half of all Black Chicagoans are vaccinated and that the city will lean more on community groups to help raise that figure. The city has divided Chicago into six health “equity zones,” with community organizations taking the lead on vaccine education and administration as well as other issues.
“We’re still very much at it,” Arwady said. “I don’t have another answer besides continuing to do what we have seen working in all the other communities in Chicago.”
In addition to handing community groups responsibility for more mass vaccinations, City Hall is working with them to get people to sign up for at-home shots, Arwady said. That effort, still in its early stages, is seeing more than 1,000 homes citywide visited each week, she said.
A community group called Future Ties — which, like Something Good in Englewood, got a $10,000 grant from the Chicagoland Vaccine Partnership — has spent the past few months visiting schools across the South Side with vaccine information. Future Ties serves ZIP code 60637, where only half of residents are fully inoculated.
“There’s still a lot of uncertainty out there, still a lot of questions that need to be answered,” said Jennifer Maddox, founder of Future Ties. “People get scared by the things that they see on TV about the increase in numbers that are rising again. And that’s why we’ve been just trying to say the reason why is because we’re still low in numbers in certain communities.”
Unlike Something Good in Englewood, Future Ties doesn’t offer vaccinations. Maddox and her outreach team of 16 split into groups of four and visit four different schools each day, bringing information about the vaccines, including where people can get shots and handing out boxes of masks to students.
Maddox said she thinks they’ve managed to ease the fears of many but knows there’s more to do.
“We’re still in a pandemic,” she said. “We have not beat this. And I don’t know when we will, if ever.”
Cheyanne M. Daniels is a Chicago Sun-Times staff reporter via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and the West Side. Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.