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City targets vulnerable communities for mass COVID vaccinations; any local over 18 eligible

A pilot program quietly launched in Belmont Cragin last weekend is expected to be expanded to other West Side and South Side communities hit hard by the virus.  

City officials say they have no plans to open an around-the-clock COVID-19 vaccination site in Chicago.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has designated Belmont Cragin and 14 other communities as priority areas for COVID vaccinations because they’ve seen high levels of virus cases and deaths.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Almost 2,000 people got COVID-19 shots at a Belmont Cragin high school last weekend and the city hopes it provides a template for vaccinating more residents in the city’s most vulnerable communities.

Administering vaccine supplied by the city, Oak Street Health organized and ran the mass vaccination Saturday and Sunday aided by community groups who reached out to residents in a highly targeted campaign, said Dr. Ali Khan, Oak Street’s executive medical director.

Khan said the effort, which is not advertised broadly to the public, will continue every weekend for the next seven weeks. Unlike other vaccination sites that limit shots to seniors, essential workers, health care employees and others in prioritized groups, the Belmont Cragin vaccinations are open to all area residents 18 and older.

“We feel pretty proud we are really serving people who live locally,” said Khan, who described an active telephone and door-knocking campaign by community groups. “We’re not just going to rely on a website.”

The Latino-majority Belmont Cragin community is one of the city’s hardest-hit by the pandemic for cases and deaths and is one of 15 singled out by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to concentrate vaccination efforts.

The program overseen by Oak Street can be a model for the city’s other high priority areas, such as Gage Park, South Lawndale (Little Village) and Austin that are majority Latino or Black and disproportionately hurt by the virus, Khan said.

A city official agreed.

“These are the communities most burdened by COVID and this is a way for us to lower those rates,” said Tamara Mahal, vaccine lead for the City of Chicago.

Mahal said there are several other similar programs to be announced soon including one in North Lawndale.

In total, the mayor has prioritized 15 “high vulnerability” communities to be prioritized for vaccinations. Archer Heights, Chicago Lawn, Englewood, Humboldt Park, Montclare, New City, North Lawndale, Roseland, South Deering, Washington Heights and West Englewood are included in that group. All have been hit with high numbers of virus infections and deaths. The communities are ranked based on scores the city calculates for health and other cumulative burden factors — including COVID cases per 100,000 residents and hospital admissions related to the virus. After those areas, there are another 11 communities that the city also rank highly vulnerable.

Lurie’s Children’s Hospital in conjunction with the city of Chicago conducted a clinic over the weekend to vaccinate residents of Belmont Cragin against the coronavirus.
Lurie Children’s in conjunction with the city of Chicago conducted a clinic over recently to vaccinate residents of Belmont Cragin against the coronavirus. The effort was separate from a pilot project launched last weekend.

Lightfoot: Vaccine hesitancy is real

Even before the shots were available, Lightfoot said she expected Black and Latino residents would be hard to reach or distrustful and reluctant to step up for the COVID vaccines. City data released in January confirmed her earlier concerns.

“The reality is that, in Black and Latinx neighborhoods, vaccine hesitancy was real,” Lightfoot said Wednesday in an interview with Washington Post Live. “We’ll be announcing some things later this week that shows that there’s been a pretty remarkable turnaround.”

Khan credits Lightfoot for putting an emphasis on reaching residents in the city’s communities of color but noted that “we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Belmont Cragin saw the biggest jump across the city in vaccinations in recent days.

Through Monday, about 1.5% of the Belmont Cragin ZIP code 60639 was vaccinated, which is an improvement over prior weeks but it lags some of the city’s less-impacted communities north of downtown along Lake Michigan. Almost 13% of ZIP code 60611, covering Streeterville and Near North Side, was vaccinated, the highest rate in the city. That area is home to a large population of doctors who were among the first to receive vaccines.

Outsiders thwarted

What’s more, aldermen have complained that even local pharmacies with vaccine have been inundated with suburban residents who are able to snatch up appointments via the web faster than locals since residency is not typically verified.

James Rudyk, executive director of Northwest Side Housing Center, said his organization and others took great care to make sure only Belmont Cragin residents were invited and registered to get the shots. Efforts by outsiders to sign up were thwarted, he said.

“We’re making sure the vaccine gets in the arms of the right people,” Rudyk said. “We want to uplift this as a model that works. It’s a model with community at the center.”

Lightfoot has warned that there is a limited amount of vaccines that the city receives from the federal government. Last week, she and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle released a joint statement saying that there was not enough vaccine to expand shots to people with underlying health conditions — a move J.B. Pritzker promoted.

In her interview with the Post, Lightfoot touted her administration’s efforts to blanket Black and Latino communities with expanded testing and distribution of free masks as well as informational postcards and door hangers.

“We’ve used that infrastructure that we’ve built in Black and Latinx communities to really get the message out about vaccines,” the mayor said.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.