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Finally! The hunt for COVID-19 vaccine appointments obsessed my family for weeks

It became a family affair — finding vaccine appointments for elderly family members, those who are essential workers and those with underlying conditions, as eligibility opened up. Traumatized by the COVID-19 journeys of four family members, getting the vaccine became an obsession.

Stickers that are given to people who were vaccinated with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are seen in a vaccination site at Chicago Vocational Career Academy in the Stony Island Park neighborhood, Friday morning, March 5, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

This might more appropriately be titled, “Vaccine Chronicles,” as the hunt for an open appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine has consumed my family for two months.

Vaccine hesitancy remains a challenge among a segment of the African American community — individuals in my immediate family included — based on the Tuskegee Experiment and America’s past history of racism within its health care system.

But another segment of the African American community has frantically grasped, with the rest of the world, for this lifeline that promises a return to some normalcy.

Every day, my family texts and emails about which members are eligible in the vaccine’s phased rollout.

Every day, we’ve shared with each other the latest distribution venue offered by the state, Cook County or city of Chicago.

Every day, there is the surfing of designated websites and calling of phone numbers, each of us armed with every family member’s pertinent information, as we fight through the busy phone lines and constant online response of “No Appointments Available.”

Phase 1A, of course, began Dec. 15, 2020, encompassing health care workers, nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Phase 1B, targeting those 65 and older, non-health care residential settings, and frontline essential workers, opened Jan. 25.

Phase 1B Plus opened statewide Feb. 25 — targeting individuals with underlying health conditions. But in Chicago, the larger population with underlying health conditions, and non-frontline essential workers, won’t be looped in until Phase 1C opens March 29.

Like so many families nationwide, mine was pummeled by the invisible and highly contagious coronavirus outbreak, declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020.

Our 94-year-old matriarch, my mother, has essentially been a shut-in, the pandemic dictating limited contact with her seven children, and no contact at all with grandchildren who are potential asymptomatic spreaders.

My millennial son in Texas caught COVID in July, triggering three weeks of hell for his father and I, who could only worry and pray in Chicago with his grandparents, aunts and uncles. As with most COVID victims his age, he came through unscathed.

Four months later, another family member caught COVID, their descent into inability to breathe, hospitalization and ultimately being placed on a ventilator, sending our family into a traumatized tailspin. They survived.

Another family member in that person’s home also caught COVID, causing again a collective holding of breath. They weathered the illness without hospitalization.

A third family member who caught COVID via this cohort also ended up hospitalized, was successfully treated and came home.

Traumatized by this COVID-19 journey, getting our family vaccinated has been priority one since December, though akin to searching for a needle in a haystack.

One sibling, a doctor, got theirs in Phase 1A.

Phase 1B looped in Mom; myself as caregiver for a medically fragile son; a family member who is caregiver for another disabled relative; and two siblings who are frontline essential workers. Like many in Chicago, Cook County and statewide, we began searching for appointments immediately.

Day after day, no appointments on the list of city vaccine sites expanding over time.

Week after week, no appointments on the growing list of Cook County vaccine sites.

No appointments through Walgreens, Osco or other national pharmacies.

Until, finally, the web surfing, phone calling and putting family names on lists paid off.

Mom and I and one essential worker sibling were blessed to get appointments at Mt. Sinai Hospital — one of four hospitals on the city’s list. The other essential worker sibling was blessed to get one at Rush University Medical Center.

The family member who is also a caregiver was blessed to get one at North Riverside Health Center in suburban North Riverside.

Another sibling got one through a Loretto Hospital pop-up vaccine event for all ages held at Amundsen Park on the West Side on Saturday — where my special-needs son, who resides between my home and his father’s home in West Side Austin, also got vaccinated.

We have a sibling with underlying conditions who initially did not trust the vaccine but has come around. We continue web surfing for that last appointment.

One of my siblings, and one other family member, have no interest in a vaccine whatsoever.

So be it. For those still searching, don’t give up. It took weeks of web surfing and phone calls for our family to get this far.

The question I get most: Side effects? They’ve run the gamut.

Mom, who we were most worried about, experienced none at all. Me? My arm was beyond sore that night and the next day, with accompanying fatigue and cold symptoms diminishing over four days. A sibling’s arm was so painful the next day they couldn’t move, chills and severe fatigue gluing her to the couch. The symptoms diminished over two days.

As I visited Mom this weekend, the two of us sitting in her living room watching Mass on TV, eating and laughing — maskless, per CDC guidelines — I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the stress of the hunt for an appointment and the minimal side effects were all worth it.