‘Failure’ to vaccinate vulnerable residents leads Chicago hospitals to try new tactics

Several hospitals are reaching out directly to those in areas hard hit by COVID after inoculations so far show a large racial imbalance.

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Pastor James M. Moody Sr., senior pastor at Quinn Chapel AME Church on the South Side, accepted Rush’s invitation to get vaccinated so he can vouch for the safety. “People pay more attention to what you do then what you say.”


In the wake of lagging efforts to vaccinate communities hit hardest by COVID-19, some of Chicago’s biggest hospitals are pursuing a mix of methods to get shots into residents of the South and West sides.

The increased focus is necessary, one advocate said, because attempts until this point have largely been a “failure.”

Advocate Health Care, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, Northwestern Memorial, Rush University Medical Center, University of Chicago and University of Illinois at Chicago are among those now running programs aimed at the city’s Black and Latino neighborhoods that have experienced the most virus cases and deaths. 

The hospitals are using different strategies, from directly calling patients in targeted ZIP codes to recruiting religious and community leaders who are willing to get inoculated so they can become local advocates. After vaccinating their own employees, hospitals are inviting other health care workers, seniors and essential workers that have been left out in the early weeks of the effort.

U. of C. contacts nearly 21K patients

The University of Chicago is using social media, email newsletters, public service ads, virtual town halls and announcements through churches and other community sources to encourage South Side residents aged 65 and older to get shots.

Through last week, the hospital contacted more than 20,700 South Side patients to invite them to get vaccinated. Nearly 6,000 have received their first dose, including 4,200 who are Black and Latino. Nurses, other health care workers and medical students will follow up by phone to urge even more seniors to schedule appointments, the university said.

Dr. Marina Del Rios, a UIC emergency room doctor and patient advocate with IllinoisUnidos, called the U. of C. effort “admirable” but said hospitals have a long ways to go to reach patients in the most vulnerable communities, an assertion backed by city data. 

“What we’ve observed, while these big medical centers have ramped up their vaccination strategy, the communities that are hardest hit aren’t really being reached,” Del Rios said.

The hospitals, city officials, faith and community leaders agree that the campaign needs to kick into high gear because whites, so far, have been receiving vaccinations at far higher rates. The latest estimates from the city show of more than 149,000 first-dose vaccinations given through the end of January, 43% of recipients are white, 17% are Latino, 16% are Black and almost 10% are Asian.

City data also show that areas of the city with a high number of cases of the virus also have low numbers of those being vaccinated. The ZIP code 60639, which includes Belmont Cragin, has one of the highest rates of COVID cases in the city yet only one in 25 people have been vaccinated. Meanwhile, 12% of the population in the Lake View ZIP code 60657 on the North Side — which has seen fewer infections — has been vaccinated, according to the city. 

“I want to think there are good people who want to problem solve,” Del Rios said, referring to the overall effort by the city and the hospitals. “So far the strategy has been a failure.”


Lurie Children’s Hospital, in conjunction with the city of Chicago, conducted a clinic over the weekend to vaccinate childcare workers in Belmont Cragin against the coronavirus.

Provided photo

Online registration a detriment

A dependence on online appointments is contributing to the problem, which is why other outreach efforts are important, she said.

Lurie, as part of a city-backed program, went to a Belmont Cragin church last weekend to administer more than 200 shots to childcare workers. A spokeswoman said the hospital hopes to participate in more programs as part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Protect Chicago initiative, which designated Belmont Cragin and 14 other communities as high-priority for an increase in vaccinations. 

Last month, Rush invited 125 church and community leaders to its West Side campus to answer questions and offer vaccine. Rush officials said they hope the pastors and others will tout the safety and effectiveness of the shots to those who may be hesitant or suspicious.

“It’s important for us church leaders, particularly in the African American community, to encourage people to get the information,” said the Rev. James M. Moody Sr., senior pastor at Quinn Chapel AME Church on the South Side.

The 65-year-old pastor received the vaccine at Rush so he could tell his congregation that it was safe and that it can save lives. “People pay more attention to what you do then what you say,” Moody said.

Northwestern officials are reaching out to people who live in 18 Chicago neighborhoods identified in a program begun in 2018 to address gun violence and provide better health care to under-served communities. Northwestern is offering vaccinations by invitation only for now and is partly focused on areas targeted by the Hospital Engagement Action and Leadership program.

Like others, UIC said it, too, is using ZIP codes to target ”neighborhoods the city has identified as most impacted by the pandemic to identify” patients, a spokeswoman said in a statement. “We have offered vaccine and started outreach to these patients first.”

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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