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A year after the first COVID-19 vaccine marks a day of cautious celebration

While it was a moment to celebrate the progress the city has made in getting residents vaccinated, Dr. Allison Arwady said the pandemic was far from over as a large swath of people remain unvaccinated.

Dr. Allison Arwady, the Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner, recognizes the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
Dr. Allison Arwady, the Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner, recognizes the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

It’s been one year since the first Chicagoan received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and during that time nearly 4 million vaccine doses have been administered with nearly 2 million residents being vaccinated against a disease that has claimed the lives of almost 800,000 people nationwide.

“We’ve never done 4 million vaccinations in a year for anything in Chicago, but we’re still not done,” Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Wednesday. “But there are still hundreds and thousands of people right here in Chicago who remain vulnerable.”

Arwady marked the anniversary as a celebration and acknowledged much has changed in the past year. Back then she stood in front of cameras urging people to not mass gather for the holidays, but now she said it’s fine — just do so cautiously and if vaccinated.

While it was a moment to celebrate the progress the city has made in getting residents vaccinated, Arwady said an estimated 650,000 people remain unvaccinated, she said.

“Let me tell you, 650,000 people who are still not protected in this city is more than enough to continue to drive the very real Delta surge that we are in now and the Omicron surge that we expect to see in the weeks to come,” Arwady said.

On Wednesday, Illinois’ second known Omicron case was confirmed in suburban Cook County. The first case announced last week was a fully vaccinated Chicago resident.

Omicron is “a variant of concern” that may potentially be more transmissible than previous variants but much is still being learned.

Arwady said the Delta is still the dominant variant in Chicago, and the best protection for the many iterations of the disease is to be vaccinated and boosted if possible.

“Boy do I know that you’re tired; I’m tired, everybody in this city and in this country and in this world is tired of COVID-19,” Arwady said. “I wish I could tell you that we didn’t have anything to worry about with Omicron. I wish I could tell you that we weren’t going to see any more breakthroughs or more people get reinfected, but we likely will.”

Despite lingering about the ongoing pandemic that has claimed the lives of nearly 800,000 people nationally and more than 6,000 in Chicago, there are still reasons to celebrate, Arwady said.

Arwady said about 74% of eligible Chicagoans have been vaccinated over the past year, which she said is the result of hard work from public officials, medical professionals and everyday residents working to get their communities vaccinated.

Elijah Ruiz joined the city’s Face Forward Project which works to celebrate teens who chose to get vaccinated with a portrait in hopes of encouraging others to do the same. He said he spent his senior year of high school with remote learning, and though it was difficult for him, he knew it was important to protect others.

When Ruiz was eligible to be vaccinated, he jumped at the opportunity.

“Growing up as a teenager in this pandemic had really altered who I was,” Ruiz said. “Today, sheltering in our homes is no longer the only way to combat COVID-19. What really impacted my choice to get vaccinated was the death of my father.”

Ruiz said his father died just a few days before he was scheduled to be vaccinated.

“He was a great man, and it’s absolutely horrible to lose great people to this pandemic,” Ruiz.

Chicago resident Elijah Ruiz speaks about his personal experience with COVID-19 and the importance of the vaccine.
Chicago resident Elijah Ruiz speaks about his personal experience with COVID-19 and the importance of the vaccine.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times