Amid a local and national increase in COVID-19 cases, health officials are urging Chicagoans to “boost up” ahead of the rollout of a new vaccine tailored to tackle the dominant strains of the Omicron variant.
“People are asking why should I get this new COVID-19 vaccine,” said Dr. Stephanie Black, an infectious disease expert at Rush University who works with the Chicago Department of Public Health.
Black’s answer is blunt: “Vaccines have prevented doctor’s visits, hospitalizations and [many] deaths … and can protect individuals from developing long COVID.”
Health experts also say protection from the old vaccine gradually wears off, making it less effective against new strains of the virus.
Though COVID-19 hospitalization rates in Chicago are far from where they were at the height of the pandemic, health officials say the virus still poses a threat to all age groups, especially infants, those 65 years and older and those with underlying medical conditions.
The new COVID-19 vaccine will be available in Chicago within the next two weeks, and health officials say it will be distributed through several major pharmacies throughout the city that will provide vaccines to people with or without insurance. The Chicago Department of Public Health will also set up three vaccine clinics on the North, West and South sides of the city, as well as pop-up vaccine clinics at several City Colleges of Chicago.
Cook County officials will set up clinics in several high-priority communities throughout the south and southwest suburbs that were considered as high-risk areas early in the pandemic.
Health officials say they expect cases of COVID-19, the flu and common respiratory viruses like RSV to rise in the coming months as the weather gets colder and people spend more time indoors. But they do not expect the likes of last winter’s tripledemic, said Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, Cook County Department of Public Health’s chief operating officer, partly because the public has learned how to navigate similar public health emergencies.
“We have great muscle memory from last year in terms of the things we need to do such as physical distancing and wearing masks,” Hasbrouck said. “So if things start ticking up, I think that people can revert back to some of those safety precautions that we’ve all learned.”
But the great muscle memory also comes with some serious COVID fatigue, as Hasbrouck said only about 20% of Cook County residents got a booster shot last year.
He expects this year’s vaccination rates to stay fairly low unless the city sees a sharp rise in case counts.
Still, Hasbrouck said the message they are pushing this winter through their social media platforms and advertising campaign is that people need to “boost up,” even if they are feeling “boosted out.” That includes people who have had COVID-19 before as natural immunity from the virus wanes over time.
Anna Savchenko is a reporter for WBEZ. You can reach her at @annasavchenkoo.