As Illinois continues to ramp up vaccinations, getting people vaccinated for COVID-19 more quickly not only depends on how many doses are shipped, but how many people are trained and available to actually inject shots into arms.
Doctors, nurses, pharmacists and the National Guard have all been deployed to do this work. But there is still a need.
“We can’t just completely flip into being vaccination centers,” said Dr. Ali Khan, Executive Medical Director at Oak Street Health. “When we’re trying to keep normal operations that keep people healthy and out of trouble from a primary care perspective, you have to find new, new workforces.”
That’s where a small group called the Chicago Vaccine Brigade is hoping to help.
Peg Dublin retired as a public health nurse at the end of 2019, but when the pandemic started, she knew it would be the biggest public health event of her lifetime.
“I immediately wanted to do something so starting in March I started signing up to volunteer with the city with the state, and I never heard anything and I was so frustrated,” Dublin said. “And then finally, with the vaccine I saw my moment.”
She started calling nurses she knew and emailing people she volunteered with on political campaigns.
“Within, it feels like, minutes our group went from five or six nurses to now about 45 or 50 people,” Dublin said.
Since January, the brigade has connected volunteers with four large health providers — Rush University Medical Center, Oak Street Health, Erie Family Health and Cook County Health.
Dublin and others have worked at some of the equity-focused sites launched by the City of Chicago under the Protect Chicago Plus program, which targets vaccines to people living in the hardest-hit ZIP codes.
Some large health systems, like University of Chicago Medicine, have been able to staff their own vaccination clinics without any volunteers. But that is not the case everywhere and that need could grow as more people become eligible and more vaccines are shipped.
One member of the brigade, Dr. Ellen Mason, is also an internal medicine doctor at Cook County.
“We have a fraction of the workforce we had 10 years ago,” Mason said. “[My colleagues] are all just working 24 hours a day right now.”
Rush University Medical Center has a vaccination clinic on their main campus that takes about 80 people to staff. It’s a mix of regular employees and volunteers, said spokeswoman Polly Tita. There are a number of retired Rush nurses who are volunteering to help administer shots.
It’s not always easy to volunteer. There can be valid but time-consuming hoops to jump through, like background checks and fingerprinting. On-boarding can also be a challenge. Take, for instance, when Oak Street ran a pop-up vaccination clinic for the city’s Protect Chicago Plus program at Steinmetz College Prep in Belmont-Cragin.
“We had to jump through a series of hoops with Chicago Public Schools to be able to be able to bring volunteers who didn’t need fingerprinting, to be able to enter the high school even if there were no students there,” Khan said.
Early in the pandemic, Gov. JB Pritzker had urged retired doctors and nurses to come back and help fight COVID-19 and made it easier for them to renew lapsed licenses. But some retirees worried about the risk of getting sick.
That’s less of a concern now. Many members of the Vaccine Brigade have now been vaccinated. Dublin said she got inoculated in January and volunteering to give shots was the first thing she did in-person in almost a year.
“I put, I think, 42 shots in arms, and it was a very intense and emotional experience,” she said. “The beauty of volunteerism is that it builds connection with people, so you feel compassion when you’re doing this work and you feel connected to other neighbors in the city. And this city needs to heal for so many reasons.”
The vaccine, she said, could be one way to do that.
Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.