While more than a million Chicagoans have already received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, some residents have yet to book an appointment, even after the City expanded eligibility under Phase 2 to everyone over 16. In underserved parts of the Southwest Side, residents still face technological and language barriers when trying to access information about the vaccine—but they’re trying to catch up.
Gage Park and Back of the Yards were two of fifteen neighborhoods initially targeted in Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Protect Chicago Plus program, a plan to direct vaccines to areas that have been hard-hit by the pandemic. Both Mexican immigrant communities ranked the highest on the City’s COVID-19 vulnerability index after West Englewood, and they are home to high numbers of essential workers.
Miguel Blancarte Jr., director of COVID-19 response and community outreach at Esperanza Health Centers, which is a partner in this initiative, stated that the vaccine clinic in Gage Park is one of four clinics Esperanza established to administer vaccines. “The first one we set up was in Brighton Park [at Mansueto High School], and then we made the decision to open the site at Gage Park on 61st and Western,” he said.
“Just knowing the propensity of positivity rates and the health disparities, we decided to bring a vaccine clinic there, to make it accessible to community members and other neighborhoods in the area as well, such as Back of the Yards, West Englewood, [and] Chicago Lawn,” he said of Esperanza, which has normally concentrated its efforts in La Villita neighborhood.
The team considered language and technological barriers in the Southwest Side and attempted to account for them when opening in Gage Park. “We know that scheduling online is an option, but at the same time,” Blancarte Jr. added, “what has been the main driver for us—even before COVID—has been our phone lines, having patient service representatives that will answer phone calls to schedule patients in English and in Spanish. So we offer different modes of being able to receive and schedule an appointment.”
Esperanza partnered with several community-based organizations, providing training to ensure they’re comfortable answering patient questions. The Gage Park Latinx Council became a reliable neighborhood call center and vaccine information hub during the height of the pandemic. Esperanza also implemented an efficient text messaging service that encouraged residents in Gage Park, La Villita, Chicago Lawn, and other neighborhoods to text the name of their neighborhood and expect a callback from a bilingual Esperanza representative.
According to their data, as of April 26, Esperanza Health Centers have administered over seventy thousand vaccines in Chicago. Of those, 92.5 percent have been to individuals that identify as Hispanic or Latinx.
In the 60629 ZIP Code, which includes Gage Park, more than 13,000 first doses of Moderna vaccines have been administered to residents. In the 60609 ZIP Code, which encompasses Back of the Yards, Esperanza has administered more than 1,600 first doses to residents to date.
Dr. Susan Lopez, an assistant professor at Rush University Medical Center, said that technology was a big barrier at the beginning of the vaccine rollout, when many registrations were only available online and required different registration forms. “I think now that the vaccine is open to anyone over the age of sixteen, and there’s walk-in appointments available, I think that makes it much more approachable,” she said.
Lopez has been doing informational sessions in La Villita, Pilsen, and Brighton Park at churches and schools. In reaching out to these communities, she has learned that for some, it’s easier to ask questions if they see someone who looks like them and speaks their language, no matter what the question might be.
Lopez understands that sometimes people can be afraid to ask their doctors questions. “Or maybe they don’t have a primary care doctor, so they don’t have the opportunity to ask.”
Often a vaccine site will ask for proof of address to ensure that people in the communities targeted in the Protect Chicago Plus program are the people getting the vaccine. According to Lopez, there has also been some potentially confusing variation as to whether or not identification or proof of address is required for the vaccine. Lopez stated that this varies by vaccination site, creating a dilemma for undocumented immigrants.
Still, Lopez makes it clear to patients that she’s not there to judge or to convince them to do anything. “I’m just here to give you the information and answer questions, because not a lot of this information has been very clear from the beginning.”
Volunteer groups have also stepped up to help people secure appointments. The Chicago Vaccine Angels was formed when a small group of concerned citizens noticed how difficult it was to obtain a vaccine. If it was difficult for them, they figured it would be worse for those who are not tech-savvy. Candice Choi is part of Chicago Vaccine Angels, which partnered with My Block, My Hood, My City to reach out to those in Black and brown communities who were not vaccinated and try to get them up to speed.
“We have people doing a lot of public service announcements, or marketing some would say, putting up flyers,” said volunteer Lindsay Taylor.
By reaching out to libraries, pharmacies, medical professionals, and other public places, Chicago Vaccine Angels hopes to be the point of contact for those who may not know where to get a vaccine or even where to start. “We have volunteers who speak all sorts of languages to make sure that people understand what our group is and how we can help,” she said.
Once they have someone’s information, the group of over 50 volunteers works to help get them an appointment close to their home or one that is accessible by public transit. “We book the appointments for them and then we call or text the individual back [to] make sure that they can make the appointment, and in some cases, we even … provide transportation for people to an appointment if it’s hard for them to get around,” Taylor added.
In the Back of the Yards community, the Peace and Education Coalition has taken a similar approach. The group is composed of people from different schools, parks, and other businesses who come together monthly to address neighborhood issues. They work primarily with Increase the Peace, an anti-violence youth program, on vaccination outreach.
Angie Kolacinski, a Back of the Yards resident and member of the Coalition, explained that the two organizations work together to help get volunteers in the streets to help the public register for the vaccine. They also discussed which parts of the neighborhood were best to station volunteers in order to engage passersby “so they could register for a vaccine on the spot.”
As of publication, close to forty percent of Gage Park’s and Back of the Yards’ respective populations have received a first dose of the vaccine, according to the health department.
As the City works to distribute vaccines at an equitable rate, local organizations are working together to cultivate a trusting relationship with their immigrant communities during COVID. That means reaching out to patients and meeting them halfway, eliminating as many barriers as possible, and facilitating their shots.
Jacqueline Serrato contributed to this story.
Deysi Cuevas is a lifelong Southwest Side resident who lives in Pilsen and whose work focuses on issues that impact her community. She previously wrote about reducing food waste at CPS.