Chicago sees first COVID-19 vaccinations — and first signs of hope

The Loretto Hospital was chosen by the city to give the first shots for the coronavirus to five health care workers.

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Dr. Marina Del Rios, from University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System, receives Chicago’s first COVID-19 vaccination Tuesday at The Loretto Hospital.

Dr. Marina Del Rios, from University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System, receives Chicago’s first COVID-19 vaccination Tuesday at The Loretto Hospital.

Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Pool

Emergency room physician Dr. Marina Del Rios was the first person in Chicago to be vaccinated for COVID-19 on Tuesday, one of five hospital workers to get shots.

“It’s really an honor to stand here and take part in this moment in history,” said Del Rios, director of Social Emergency Medicine at University of Illinois Health. “As an emergency physician who has been on the frontlines of this pandemic since Day One, I can attest that health care workers have been anxious for this day to come.”

Hospital health care workers are first to get inoculated, and, in the coming weeks, nursing home residents and staff will also be offered the vaccine, which requires two doses three weeks apart.

All five shots were given in the morning at The Loretto Hospital, a community health care provider in Austin, that was selected by the city as a site to receive and administer the first shots.

Austin and the surrounding West Side have been hit hard by the virus. Mayor Lori Lightfoot used the setting in a news conference to promise an emphasis on vaccinating the Black and Latino communities that bear a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 cases. As part of the effort, Lightfoot said it will be essential to closely follow demographic trends for vaccinations.

“Equity isn’t part of our COVID-19 strategy — it is our strategy,” Lightfoot said. “When it comes to our vaccine rollout, it will be leaving no one behind.”

Other hospitals will receive vaccine doses throughout the week. In all, Chicago is expected to receive 23,400 doses this week. Some doses will be shipped directly to hospitals that have the cold storage needed for the Pfizer vaccine, the first to receive an emergency use approval from the government.

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In addition to Del Rios, four other West Side hospital health care workers were vaccinated Tuesday: Elizabeth Zimnie, an emergency room nurse at Norwegian American Hospital on the West Side; Barbara Shields Johnson, a critical care nurse at Loretto; Jermilla Hill, a patient care technician at Loretto; and Mark Hooks, an emergency room nurse at Loretto.

“Many of us, especially those of us who identify with and serve Black and Latino communities have lost co-workers, friends and family members,” Del Rios said. “We worry about the capacity to keep our patients safe in the setting of overcrowded hospitals. We worry about bringing COVID home to our families. We worry about getting ourselves sick.”

For health care workers, the initial vaccines are a sign of hope, she added.

“This vaccine gives us some hope that there is an endpoint,” Del Rios said. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Lightfoot and other speakers called on residents in the hard-hit communities of color to trust the science and get vaccinated. Many residents in the Black and Latino communities are suspicious of medical research, presenting a huge challenge for city officials.

“Black folks, my Latinx brothers and sisters, we are the ones who are most disproportionately suffering from this virus,” Lightfoot said. “We are the ones who must step up and make sure that we get protected from the ravages of this virus.”

The mayor acknowledged the task ahead of winning trust.

“There is an unfortunate trust deficit nationwide when it comes to taking this vaccine, particularly among predominantly African American and Latinx communities,” Lightfoot said. “This is a challenge we must meet and we must conquer.”

Loretto CEO George Miller knows the challenge. To encourage minority participation in clinical studies of COVID vaccines, he visited more than 100 churches to help build trust in the community.

“Unfortunately, for too long, African Americans and Latino Americans have suffered the brunt of inequity and disparities in health care,” Miller said.

Shortly after the Chicago inoculations, five other health care workers received the vaccine at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria.

The first 109,000 doses are being distributed this week among 96 hospitals across the state, prioritized for 50 counties suffering the highest per-capita coronavirus death rates.

About 43,000 of those were delivered to hospitals Tuesday. Gov. J.B. Pritzker called it “a beginning for the state of Illinois.”

“People getting vaccinated, particularly our health care workers, is an exciting moment. I hope that everybody will take note,” Pritzker said. “These health care workers have been working all throughout this pandemic taking care of people on the frontlines. These are our heroes, and our heroes now have stepped forward to get their vaccine and to show the way for everybody.”

The first doses were administered 274 days after COVID-19 claimed its first life in Illinois March 16. Since then, the virus has spread to more than 856,000 additional people, killing a total of 14,394 residents.

It’s also devastated the economy, particularly the hospitality and entertainment industries. The Democratic governor has said the state won’t fully reopen until a vaccine is widely available, and that’s still months away.

“Today is the beginning of a process that allows us to move toward reopening the state entirely. It will take some time,” Pritzker said.

Nurse Shannon Lesch administers the state’s first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccination outside of Chicago to certified nursing assistant Chemica Jones, 41, at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in downstate Peoria, Tuesday morning, Dec. 15, 2020.

Certified nursing assistant Chemica Jones, 41, received the state’s first coronavirus vaccination at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said the goal to achieve “herd immunity” in the state is to vaccinate at least 10 million of the state’s roughly 12.7 million residents. That process that “will take quite awhile,” she said, depending on how many vaccines receive federal approval and how much people trust them.

“It will be many, many months — I think most of 2021 will be spent in this effort,” Ezike said. “But I’m excited for the engagement and for the support of the community to get this done as rapidly as possible.”

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

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