Lightfoot marks first anniversary of ‘racial equity rapid response teams’

The teams’ “hyper-local, data-informed” approach was intended to stop Chicago’s Black and Brown residents from bearing the brunt of COVID-19 deaths.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot answers reporters questions during a press conference to provide an update to the latest efforts by the racial equity rapid response teams, Monday April 20, 2020.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, shown at a news conference in April 2020, discussing her administration’s racial equity rapid response teams.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot will never forget the moment she first learned Black Chicagoans were dying from the coronavirus at seven times the rate of “any other demographic.” She felt like “someone had literally knocked the wind out of me.”

Fearing a similar disparity among Latinos, Lightfoot knew she could not reveal those startling statistics without also “offering up some concrete solutions.”

She spent the next few days pushing her team to devise an intensive outreach plan and telling them their initial responses “weren’t good enough” to confront the disparity. That’s how Chicago’s “racial equity rapid response teams” were created.

On Tuesday, Lightfoot held an hourlong roundtable carried live on social media to mark the one-year anniversary of the “hyper-local, data-informed” approach she said has become a model for the nation.

Joining the mayor — from City Hall and virtually via Zoom — were a host of community leaders and health care professionals along with chief equity officer Candace Moore and Sybil Madison, deputy mayor for education and human services.

“The charge that I gave to my team that … they have fulfilled magnificently is, ‘Let’s not build temporary scaffolding around a problem.’ … What we must do is … educate, listen and reach people where they are, so that we build a community health network that will see us through the other challenges we are continuing to face underneath the pandemic,” Lightfoot said.

“I want a foundational infrastructure across our city that reaches those who are most vulnerable to health care disparities, life expectancy disparities, so we can continue the hard work of shrinking those gaps and connecting people up with good quality, inexpensive care,” the mayor added. “That is the mission that I believe we have been on that will continue … because of the importance of bringing a healthy Chicago out of the ashes of this pandemic.”

Lightfoot noted the outreach teams spent the “early days” figuring out how to engage hard-hit ZIP codes without “coming across as City Hall big-footing down into communities.”

Plenty of time was also spent, as she put it, “myth-busting.” That is, shooting down the mistaken notion that “Black folks couldn’t get the virus” at a time when the “first person who died” in Chicago was a Black woman: 61-year-old retired nurse Patricia Frieson.

“We assumed — based on our data, based on what we knew about Auburn Gresham — that the biggest need there would be health care. But when we went into the community, what we heard … was food insecurity was the No. 1 thing,” the mayor said.

“Coming to a neighborhood, you can’t make presumptions about what you think those needs are. We have to listen to what people on the ground who are doing the work are telling us, then supply the resources that are necessary to meet that need. That’s one of the big takeaways of this experience in the last year.”

Patricia Frieson, who died March 16, 2020 at age 61, was the first known coronavirus-related death in Illinois.

Patricia Frieson, who died March 16, 2020 at age 61, was the first known coronavirus-related death in Illinois.


Carlos Nelson, executive director of the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation, recalled his “heart was heavy” at that first news conference one year ago. After claiming Frieson, an Auburn Gresham resident, COVID-19 was raging through the community.

“I remember saying, ‘Mayor, if we had access to quality health care right here in Auburn Gresham, maybe we could have saved that life or those lives or at least supported many lives,’ ” Nelson said.

“And out of this racial equity rapid response, you found resources to help push our Auburn Gresham Healthy Lifestyle Hub across the finish line” as part of Lightfoot’s signature Invest South/West initiative.

Dr. David Ansell of Rush University Medical Center said the “federated model of integrating community anchors with health care anchors and the city” is not simply a “model for COVID.” It’s a “model for the future.”

“For the providers, it was kind of eye-opening. We were thinking about ICU beds, and the community was saying, ‘We need food.’ Even the way that we thought about testing [was challenged]. We said, ‘You should be tested if you’re symptomatic.’ And the community said, ‘No. Everyone should be tested,’ ” Ansell said.

“It really has changed the way we thought about things. And then, we reached out to 75,000 patients. Rather than waiting for our patients to call us, we called them.”

Luis Gutierrez, CEO of Latinos Progresandro, lead agency of the Marshall Square Network Resource, said what’s unique about the yearlong outreach is the “honesty” used to communicate “what the real needs are” in Chicago neighborhoods.

“As we moved into vaccine rollout, we took what we learned from the COVID testing and just moved it right over,” he said.

“That’s not to say that there are not bumps in the road. We certainly had that. But the honesty of the conversation between health care providers, community anchors and city allowed us to look at data in real time and strategize honestly about how we make these things better.”

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