More than 2,000 people living or working in the shelter system at more than seventy-five shelter programs have received the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. The nonprofits Heartland Alliance Health, which serves the North/Northwest Side, downtown, and South Side regions of the city, and Lawndale Christian Health Center, which serves the West and Southwest sides, have been providing vaccines to shelters across the city.
Vaccination efforts in shelters began on January 25 when Chicago moved into Phase 1b of its vaccine plan, opening up the vaccine to Chicago residents in non-healthcare residential settings. The Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) designated the two organizations to provide the vaccine to both guests and staff at shelters. Other care providers within certain shelters, including the PCC Community Wellness Center, are also vaccinating their patients.
CDPH sent 1,600 vaccine doses to Heartland Alliance Health specifically for people living in congregate settings who are experiencing homelessness and the staff. They began administering doses immediately, prioritizing the largest, most populous settings where people aren’t able to social distance and where people sleep in the same room. As of February 22, Heartland Alliance Health has administered 1,150 vaccines at forty-five programs from thirty-seven organizations across the city.
The partnership centered on the issue of equity. “Where was there more COVID? Where was there more death? What ZIP Codes had more COVID and had experienced more issues? We targeted those areas first,” said Mary Tornabene, the nurse practitioner leading the public health team in the vaccinations.
Alyse Kittner, the program manager at CDPH, reiterated these priorities. “We started with those sites where COVID-19 outbreaks are most likely to occur, where spread is most likely, and where people are most vulnerable,” she said.
“Our goal is really to eliminate racial disparities with regard to access to the COVID vaccine, testing, and ongoing care,” said Katy Kelleghan, Heartland Alliance Health’s senior director of growth. “This is informed by data that we’re seeing that communities that are most impacted are those that have traditionally not had access to care.”
Dr. Thomas Huggett, a family physician at Lawndale Christian Health Center, echoed Kelleghan’s concern regarding inequitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccine access across Chicago. “There are more Black people that have died of COVID-19 in Chicago than any other ethnic group” he said. “There are more Latinx people that have been infected with COVID-19 than any other ethnic group. But who has received the majority of the vaccines so far? White folks on the lakefront in Chicago. So the people of color on the West and the South sides have certainly not been prioritized.”
In late January, the Weekly launched a daily Twitter bot mapping COVID-19 deaths next to fully vaccinated residents, revealing a negative relationship. Heavily Black and Latinx South and West side neighborhoods have higher numbers of COVID-19 deaths while fully vaccinated Chicagoans tend to live on the predominantly white North Side.
“Seventy percent of people experiencing homelessness in Chicago are African American, so just almost by definition, we’re trying to meet that need,” Dr. Huggett said.
CDPH sent 1,200 vaccine doses to Lawndale Christian Health Center and staffers there began administering them on January 26 at Pacific Garden Mission, a large congregate-style shelter on Canal St.
As of February 22, Lawndale Christian Health Center has administered the first Moderna vaccine to 892 people experiencing homelessness and the staff who serve them across twenty-four different shelters. Of these people, fifty-six percent are Black, twelve percent are Latinx, and thirteen percent are over the age of sixty-five. Another 500 people were vaccinated at Haymarket Center, a rehabilitation center in Fulton Market, in collaboration with Walgreens.
Though they began administering the vaccines in late January, both organizations began engagement efforts with staff and guests at the shelters well before they received the first doses of the vaccine from the city. Heartland Alliance Health held a webinar on the first week of January for all the shelter administrators to learn about the vaccine, ask questions, and express what they needed for their staff. Lawndale Christian Health Center held a Zoom meeting with eighty shelter staff from at least twelve agencies across the city, during which their psychiatrist spoke about racial inequity in healthcare.
“There’s always a suspicion [from patients] when we see people on-site in the shelters to do their primary care,” Dr. Huggett said. “Sometimes we’re perceived as being part of that system that has used them in the past. So it’s not unusual for us to have to kind of work through that to try to achieve a degree of trust and the therapeutic alliance and relationship as we go forward. We’ve kind of had to do that with the vaccine, too.”
Lawndale Christian Health Center’s engagement sessions—of which they have had more than a dozen—have primarily been hosted by Dr. Huggett and other primary care providers who work on-site at the shelters they serve. Their in-person engagement sessions involve discussions with groups of eight to ten participants at the shelters.
“We didn’t call them education sessions, we intentionally called them engagement sessions,” Dr. Huggett said. That was so we could hear concerns, try to answer questions, try to lay out the facts as they have been presented to us for the vaccine, and really emphasize that each person makes their own vaccine plan and that we’re going to be there for them.”
Heartland Alliance Health approaches engagement sessions in the same way. “I’m not gonna stand up with a big powerpoint at a shelter,” Tornabene said. “I’m gonna sit down and have a one-on-one or a one-on-small-group conversation, and they’re gonna tell me what they need to know.”
While some people in shelters initially chose not to receive the vaccine, they decided to do so once they had seen the effects the vaccine had had on others around them. “At Franciscan Outreach [shelter] on Harrison Street, we vaccinated probably sixty-five or seventy out of about the 140 people that were there. But what we found is that the very next week, people saw that people did okay, and then I did ten in a night because there were more people who were interested,” Dr. Huggett said.
By the end of February, both Lawndale Christian Health Center and Heartland Alliance Health are expected to have offered on-site vaccination to every shelter in Chicago, and they began administering the second doses of the vaccine on Tuesday.
Madeleine Parrish grew up in New Jersey and is currently a University of Chicago political science undergraduate. She last wrote about reduced capacity and lack of turnover in shelters due to COVID-19.