Corina Pedraza considers herself a frontline essential worker as library branches across Chicago have turned into hubs for food, coat and personal protective equipment distribution sites during the coronavirus pandemic.
But library workers found themselves left out of the Phase 1B vaccine distribution, which opened up eligibility on Jan. 25 to certain essential workers, such as those in the manufacturing and public transit industries. Pedraza said workers thought they would be part of the 1B group, but they were later told they would have to wait until the city reaches Phase 1C.
“Since there seems to be no consensus amongst city leaders, library workers are left wondering when, if ever, we will be treated with dignity by the city that we continue to risk our health to serve during the pandemic,” Pedraza said during a virtual news conference Thursday.
She and other library workers are now pushing for inclusion in Phase 1B or for the city to implement a curbside pickup program. The workers were joined by a handful of aldermen who support moving library employees ahead in the vaccination line.
“Given the regular public-facing nature of this work, it’s critical that they have access to the COVID-19 vaccine alongside other frontline essential workers,” said Ald. Matt Martin, of the 47th Ward.
In a statement, the Chicago Public Library said it wouldn’t do a curbside program in lieu of current services because it would “disproportionately impact low-income Chicagoans and people of color.” The agency argued that a curbside program might also increase in-person contact more than the current protocols in place. The library said employees will be included in the city’s Phase 1C vaccination plan, explaining that other workers ahead of them are less likely to be able to social distance or wear masks.
“Mayor Lightfoot has repeatedly acknowledged the essential work of library personnel, and we are eager for our staff to be vaccinated,” according to the statement from Chicago Public Library.
Branch libraries initially closed for a few months during the coronavirus pandemic, but the facilities reopened last June, according to the library’s website.
The Chicago Public Library employs 1,018 workers, and 53 have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the city. Contact tracing found that three cases were work-related and four other cases were undetermined, according to the library’s statement. The library did not believe the other cases were work-related.
Mark Kaplan, a librarian in the Uptown neighborhood, said his branch had to close at least once during the pandemic because of COVID-19 exposure. And with the possibility of virus variants, Kaplan said it will be hard to get members of the public to wear two masks when some have difficulty wearing one mask correctly.
“Library staff are demoralized and scared,” Kaplan said. “Every day at work feels risky, and I’m not alone in my fear of bringing the virus home to my family.”
Across the state, other counties such as Rock Island and Winnebago have made library workers eligible for vaccines under Phase 1B, according to a list compiled by the Illinois Library Association.
The group that came together Thursday also pushed for a more equitable distribution of the vaccine, offering similar ideas that other groups have brought up like going directly to senior buildings.
As of Jan. 30, most of those who have been vaccinated in Chicago — 49.7% — were white, according to statistics from the city. As of Wednesday, more Black residents — 1,797 — have died from COVID-19-related reasons than any other racial group, according to city data. Latino residents still make up the most confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 80,891 as of this week.
Davetta Brooks, a member of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, said many seniors are frustrated and unable to secure appointments for the vaccine despite their age eligibility. The caucus advocates for issues affecting the elderly in Chicago.
Brooks said getting to a vaccine site could also be a challenge, pointing out she uses a wheelchair to get around.
“I want it,” Brooks said about the vaccine. “I want to live and (seniors) want to live.”
Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.