Chicago Targets 15 Hard-Hit Communities For A Vaccination Blitz To Fight Disparities

COVID Vaccine Elmhurst
The Protect Chicago Plus plan allows anyone in that community to get a COVID-19 vaccine, and the first efforts resulted in 1,500 people vaccinated in Belmont Cragin in one weekend. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
COVID Vaccine Elmhurst
The Protect Chicago Plus plan allows anyone in that community to get a COVID-19 vaccine, and the first efforts resulted in 1,500 people vaccinated in Belmont Cragin in one weekend. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Targets 15 Hard-Hit Communities For A Vaccination Blitz To Fight Disparities

This story is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

Since the pandemic began, Belmont Cragin on the Northwest Side has lost more than 200 of its residents to COVID-19, the third highest number of deaths of any neighborhood in Chicago.

Last weekend, more than 1,500 of its residents got their first shots of a COVID-19 vaccine — roughly seven times more than the average number of vaccines received so far by residents of any other neighborhood.

The vaccination boom in Belmont Cragin wasn’t random: It came after weeks of planning with the public health department, elected officials, community organizations and a local clinic.

It’s part of Protect Chicago Plus, an initiative the city announced with fanfare in late January to focus vaccinations on communities hit hardest by the pandemic. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Department of Public Health planned to target 15 communities, with each getting specific allotments of vaccine, a health care partner to do the vaccinating, and a group leading the outreach efforts.

There’s a key element of Protect Chicago Plus: anyone who lives in the neighborhood is eligible for the vaccine, regardless of whether they fall into a priority group defined by the CDC.

This comes after initial efforts at vaccinations went overwhelmingly to Chicago’s white residents, a disproportionate rate that recent city data suggests is improving. Organizers say the early turnout for their efforts also shows that despite hesitancy in some of these communities to take a COVID-19 vaccine, right now, there are still scores of people who are ready to get it.

“It just shows what you can do … if we can commit to actually being really deliberate in how we target populations and making it really easy for them to get this vaccine,” said Dr. Ali Khan, Executive Medical Director of Oak Street Health, which is the local clinic administering the vaccines in Belmont Cragin, which is a mostly Latino neighborhood.

There are 14 other neighborhoods that will see similar vaccine blitzes under Protect Chicago Plus in the coming months. They are:

  • Little Village, Gage Park and North Lawndale in mid-February;
  • Montclare, Englewood and West Englewood in late February;
  • Austin, Back of the Yards and Archer Heights in early March;
  • Roseland, Washington Heights and South Deering in mid-March;
  • and Humboldt Park and Chicago Lawn in late March.

The effort has intentionally targeted only those residents who live in the neighborhood, said James Rudyk, Jr., the executive director of Northwest Side Housing Center, one of the community groups leading the effort in Belmont Cragin.

“We decided to opt for a closed registration system, which means that we did not circulate flyers, materials, or any sort of publicly available registration tool,” Rudyk said. Instead, about 50 different individuals and institutions booked appointments for people, including the local alderman and state representative.

Rudyk said they used their own databases, email lists, and phone trees to reach out to people with Belmont Cragin addresses and when people came to them, they didn’t require ID, but asked for some kind of address verification, like a piece of mail. The vaccinations were done at Steinmetz College Prep over the weekend to accommodate people’s work schedules.

That’s where Jose A. Orjales Jr. found himself getting a shot this past weekend. At 56, he’s retired and now takes care of his 80-year-old mother, who lives with him.

“For me, I thought it was going to take a couple of months,” Orjales Jr. said. “I was more concerned about my mom.”

Her doctor told them it would be at least a few weeks before she could get in for a vaccination appointment.

But Orjales Jr.’s cousin heard about the event at Steinmetz and was able to register both Jose and his mother for Saturday.

“It wasn’t crowded. It was easy,” Orjales Jr. said, adding that he only had a sore arm the next day.

Getting vaccines where they’re needed most

Chicago officials have been trying to ramp up vaccinations in these neighborhoods after initial vaccination efforts focused on health care workers and nursing home residents showed that half of residents vaccinated so far were white.

Neighborhoods downtown and on the North Side have not been particularly hard hit by COVID-19 cases and deaths, yet they are leading the pack when it comes to vaccinated residents.

Data provided by the Chicago Department of Public Health Tuesday shows that trend shifting, with 41.1% of first doses going to white Chicagoans, 26.2% going to Latinx residents, 23.6% going to Black Chicagoans and 6.7% to Asian residents over the past week.

That brings the cumulative tallies of first doses so far to 40.8% to white residents, 19.1% to Black residents, 18.1% to Latinx Chicagoans, and 6.7% to Asian residents, as of Feb. 13, the city’s data indicated.

It’s too early to attribute the shift to Protect Chicago Plus, but organizers involved with the effort say the all-hands-on-deck approach is vital to ensuring vaccines are getting to the places that need it most.

Another one of the 15 communities to see an influx of vaccines is Gage Park on the Southwest Side.

The heavily immigrant community is home to many essential workers, most of whom can’t do their work from home. And here, many generations of families live together in the same building, so being able to vaccinate across the age groups instead of waiting for tiers could lead to faster overall protection against the virus.

“We want to make sure we can vaccinate pretty much anyone in the household,” said Carmen Vergara, chief operating officer at Esperanza Health Centers, which is doing vaccinations as the health partner for Gage Park. “To have as many people in the building protected at one time, it helps with the overall spread.”

Esperanza’s mass vaccination clinic in Gage Park opened this week inside a former fitness center. Esperanza is partnering with other organizations that know the community well to spread the word, from passing out fliers in local grocery stores to door-knocking.

The partners are hoping to saturate the community with vaccinations over the next 12 weeks, six days a week. The clinic could vaccinate up to 3,000 people a week, Vergara said.

Ensuring vaccines go to neighborhood residents, not outsiders

Partners in the Protect Chicago Plus vaccination efforts say focusing some portions of vaccine toward specific neighborhoods is a small step toward leveling an uneven playing field for vaccine access.

The limited supply of COVID-19 vaccine is driving people to go to extreme measures to get one. It also tends to shut out people of color, low-income communities, and undocumented people, who may not have time and resources to “stay up until midnight, set and an alarm and navigate systems and online portals” to get an appointment, Rudyk said.

“There are a lot of places where people are hunting for extra doses,” Khan said. “We cannot let this be one of them.”

Khan said he could count on two hands how many out-of-towners showed up to Steinmetz hoping for a vaccine.

“I had a couple of pointed conversations with individuals from the northern suburbs, who showed up and were asking for doses,” Khan said. “And we said, ‘Look, this is specifically for this community and the extra doses, if we have them at the end of the day, will go to this community.’”

The vaccination blitz in Belmont Cragin is set to run for eight weeks, but the last four weeks will only be for second doses.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas, who’s 36th Ward covers part of Belmont Cragin, said it won’t be enough to catch up to the more well-off downtown communities, who have seen close to 25% of their population get a first dose already.

“It’s just that: it’s a blitz,” Villegas said. “Until we get the needed resources in the form of vaccines from the (federal government), we’re gonna continue putting bandages in these communities.”

The story has been updated to clarify that new first doses tallies by race were from the past week.

Becky Vevea and Kristen Schorsch cover COVID-19 on WBEZ’s government and politics desk. Follow them @beckyvevea @kschorsch.