This story is supported by the Pulitzer Center.
In early February, the first shipment of Moderna COVID-19 vaccines arrived at a small clinic run by Sinai Medical Group inside a strip mall at Ashland Avenue and 63rd Street.
The 100 doses allocated to the small storefront were the first to show up in West Englewood since the vaccine roll out began about two months earlier. Another 200 doses were ordered the following week.
That was all that West Englewood got.
The 60636 ZIP code that encompasses the neighborhood has received just 300 doses since December, when Chicago’s vaccine rollout began, according to a WBEZ analysis of vaccine distribution data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Nearly five times as many doses have shipped downtown to the geographically tiny 60602 ZIP code that covers six blocks of skyscrapers along Washington Street. All 1,400 doses there went to one location of a publicly-traded company called One Medical that charges $199 a year membership fee for access to primary care physicians 24 hours a day.
But the ZIP code that got by far the most doses was 60612, home to the Illinois Medical District. That area received more than 500 times as many vaccine doses as West Englewood.
The Chicago Department of Public Health data obtained and analyzed by WBEZ provides the clearest picture yet of how nearly one million vaccine doses have flowed to health care providers across the city — eventually making their way into peoples’ arms — since they started arriving in December. It shows where the city has actually steered the vaccine, down to which providers in which ZIP codes get doses.
And it helps explain why getting a coveted vaccine has been such a struggle for so many Chicagoans, forcing residents to leave their neighborhoods for a shot or wait for the city to prioritize their communities.
The lopsidedness of where vaccines have been shipped comes even though Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has repeatedly touted equity in the vaccine rollout.
“As I’ve said many times throughout the pandemic, equity isn’t just part of our strategy, it is our strategy,” Lightfoot said Monday as she announced the opening of a mass vaccination site for union members near Chinatown.
More than half of Chicago’s vaccine doses shipped to just 10 ZIP codes
The newly-released data perhaps illuminates where health care deserts already exist in Chicago — and the neighborhoods flush with medical care.
Data covering the first three months of the vaccine rollout through March 12 show more than 500,000 doses — about 62% of the doses sent to Chicago providers --- were shipped to 10 Chicago ZIP codes. That’s more than the rest of the city combined, which has been shipped just over 320,000 doses.
Much of this is due to where large hospitals are located. Unsurprisingly, the ZIP code that’s home to the Illinois Medical District on the Near West Side has gotten the most with 156,510 doses. The 60612 ZIP code is home to prominent teaching hospitals Rush University Medical Center, John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital and University of Illinois Hospital. Streeterville, where giant Northwestern Memorial Hospital is located, has received the second most, with 79,305 doses shipped to 60611.
By ZIP code: Where vaccines have been shipped (left) and people have died of COVID-19 (right)
Note: Vaccine distribution data does not include shipments to the United Center or CDPH vaccination sites.
Source: Chicago Department of Public Health, COVID-19 vaccine distribution and deaths data as of 3/12/2021. Visualization: Mary Hall/WBEZ.
One hospital provider cautioned that analyzing where Chicago sent the vaccine is only part of the picture of access.
“It arrives at 60612 … but that doesn’t mean that [vaccines go] only to 60612,” said Dr. Susan Bleasdale, medical director of infection prevention and control at University of Illinois Hospital. Bleasdale also oversees the vaccine rollout at the health system. “I don’t think it’s so much about where they’ve been shipped. It’s about where they’re used and who has access to it and how you have access to it.”
But, knowing where Chicago directed boxes of COVID-19 vaccines does tell residents how the city — like the rest of the country — prioritized its rollout. Early on in December, emphasis was given at first to large hospitals that were already set up with staff and storage to vaccinate the elderly and health care workers — two of the first priority groups.
Still, hospital officials told WBEZ they made efforts to prioritize communities of color, knowing that access to health care facilities lagged in their neighborhoods.
Chris King, a spokesman for Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said about a third of the more than 60,000 doses sent to the hospital went to staff and the remaining went to patients. Of those that went to patients, 25% were from vulnerable Chicago ZIP codes, identified by the HEAL initiative launched by Sen. Dick Durbin’s office.
Bleasdale said UI Health provided about 2,000 of their initial 10,000 doses to people in the ZIP codes later identified by the city as hardest-hit and most vulnerable. They also opened up appointments to health care workers who worked elsewhere, but couldn’t get shots through their employers.
UI Health officials said it didn’t stop there. Now, the health system is running pop-up clinics in three of the city’s 15 Protect Chicago Plus communities. So while they’re one of the providers to get the most vaccines — with just over 61,000 doses arriving at their doorstep since the rollout began — Bleasdale said 15,000 doses have gone exclusively to these selected communities.
The data shows Protect Chicago Plus is having an impact. Five of the city’s neighborhoods in the program — Gage Park, Belmont Cragin, Little Village, Englewood and Pilsen — are also among the 10 ZIP codes that have received the most vaccine shipments
Vaccine rollout highlights existing health care deserts
Contrast the rollout above with one neighborhood on the South Side, Chatham. Just 1,200 doses of vaccine have been shipped to 60619 since the rollout began in December. That’s despite the fact that 116 Chatham residents have died of the coronavirus, which is higher than the citywide average of 84 deaths per ZIP code, according to a WBEZ analysis of city data.
This dose distribution data shines a light on the health care disparities that existed well before the pandemic. The South and West sides have far fewer physicians and pharmacies than the more affluent North Side. That’s long meant fewer places for people to see a doctor if they get sick.
Now it means fewer locations available to actually ship vaccines.
Denise Walker, a vice president with Sinai Medical Group, said their location in West Englewood — which got the community’s only 300 doses so far — has been there for almost 20 years.
“Even though other health systems pulled out of that ZIP code, Sinai Chicago stayed in there,” Walker said.
The Sinai health system also includes Holy Cross Hospital in neighboring Marquette Park. Providers in that ZIP code have gotten 4,100 doses. But Sinai spokesperson Dan Regan said the doses for Holy Cross would not show up in the shipments to the 60629 ZIP code for Marquette Park because they’re shipped to the main hospital — Mount Sinai — in the 60608 ZIP code.
This is a big caveat in the data, said Tamara Mahal, who oversees vaccination operations in the city in coordination with the Chicago Department of Public Health.
Shipping location does not determine where a shot is given or who gets it. But apart from conversations with providers, Mahal acknowledged the city doesn’t know how providers actually used the doses they received. Hospitals, clinics and pharmacies don’t always track each shot to the exact site where they administered it.
The city separately reports how many Chicago residents are vaccinated by ZIP code. In West Englewood, nearly 5,000 doses have been administered to 3,500 people. That’s far more than the 300 doses that have actually been delivered to the area, a sign that residents have left their neighborhood to be vaccinated.
“If you’re looking in the Far South Side, there’s just less providers,” Mahal said. “Which is why the city is focusing on things like Protect Chicago Plus, why we’ve asked Jewel and Walgreens and CVS to go down there and do special events, why we’re partnering with faith groups and seniors and so on and so forth to get [residents] vaccinated.”
There are three ZIP codes that have received no vaccine at all. They are 60827, which encompasses the Far South Side neighborhood of Altgeld Gardens; 60633, which includes Hegewisch also on the Far South Side; and 60642, which covers Goose Island and some small residential areas nearby.
WBEZ’s analysis separated 96,988 doses that were shipped to and administered directly by the Chicago Department of Public Health. The city’s data doesn’t show where those doses ultimately went, but a spokesman said they were administered at city-run sites or through mobile vaccination efforts for homebound residents.
The analysis also separated 84,240 doses the federal government shipped to Chicago for the United Center mass vaccination site.
City says not all providers were ready to get COVID-19 vaccine
The city says its early distribution plan — sending the bulk of vaccines toward larger hospitals instead of smaller facilities in hardest-hit neighborhoods — was born out of necessity.
Big hospitals not only had thousands of employees that were among the first groups of people to be eligible, but also had the resources — staff, money, ultra cold freezers to store doses in — to vaccinate people en masse.
Many clinics that mainly treat low-income Black and Latino Chicagoans just weren’t ready, Mahal said. Neither were many pharmacies and outpatient centers, she said. Others didn’t want doses.
For some, the logistics — buying a special freezer, hiring and training extra staff for jobs that could just be temporary, and the extra space needed — were too cumbersome.
“To have a patient sitting in your office for 15 or 30 minutes while you’re simultaneously dealing with sick COVID patients, especially in an outpatient facility … they’re really not set up for that,” Mahal said. “It took a while for them to arrange their appointments, their offices and even ensure that they had registration systems that could account for that.”
But some of those smaller clinics pushed for, and received, a sizable share.
Esperanza Health Centers is a group of clinics that mainly serves low-income people of color on the Southwest Side, where COVID-19 has raged. Despite its small size and tight financial margins, Esperanza was among clinics that aggressively pursued vaccines. And it was one of the top recipients for doses in Chicago: more than 30,000.
“It was clear when we saw the maps that it was a true emergency in our neighborhoods,” Esperanza CEO Dan Fulwiler said.
He’s referring to maps that showed while COVID-19 was hitting Black and Latino neighborhoods hardest, vaccination rates were higher on the North Side.
Fulwiler said his organization demonstrated to the city early on it could handle a mass vaccination job by running mass COVID-19 testing sites. At one point, Esperanza was testing some 400 people a day for the coronavirus.
He outlined the investment, which he estimates to be millions of dollars, to vaccinate thousands of people. He hired some 90 people to help give shots, work at the call center and bill insurers. That’s a 50% increase in his workforce.
Just over 90% of people Esperanza has vaccinated are Latino, reflecting the residents of neighborhoods those clinics serve.
University of Chicago Medical Center in Hyde Park, which is by far the biggest hospital on the South Side in a sea of small community hospitals, also has received some of the most doses from the city: at least 60,000. U of C has the capacity to vaccinate about 1,000 people a day.
About 50% of doses have gone to residents who live in 15 South Side ZIP codes that U of C is prioritizing.
A hospital spokeswoman confirmed U of C has vaccinated more than 30,000 people with at least one dose so far. Of those, 42% are white, 33% are Black and another 25% are either another race or their race isn’t known.
The hospital initially received about four to five boxes a week. They come frozen in what looks like a pizza box and are immediately placed in an ultra cold freezer. Then the city started allocating five to six boxes a week, said Krista Curell, a U of C vice president who helped start the hospital’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic.
But is that enough, considering the shortage of providers on the South Side?
“We feel very strongly that we’ve had an incredible partnership with [the Chicago Department of Public Health] and that they have really gone out of their way to give us as much vaccine as they can every single week,” Curell said.
This story has been updated to clarify the neighborhoods named in the city’s Protect Chicago Plus program.