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COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution in Chicago: Disparities Among Neighborhoods

By Jaylene Rodriguez |  @RedLineProject | Posted: Friday, May 7, 2021

Little Village resident and faith-based organizer Dolores Castañeda detailed her community’s ongoing frustrations with booking appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I recently observed a facility where they were helping individuals schedule appointments and they were not following guidelines. No social distancing, they weren’t disinfecting the seats where the people were sitting down, and on top of that they were only taking names and numbers, claiming they would call if there were appointments available,” she said, also adding that this is not the case for North Side residents.

“I know those who have the privilege of being able to choose where they go to get the vaccine, it’s a problem for them, which place should I go? In this community, we don’t have a choice, we don’t have those same opportunities,” she said.

Little Village is just an example of what Chicago’s minorities are experiencing when booking appointments. Access to the vaccine is extremely limited in Chicago South and West side neighborhoods, data shows.

“It’s traumatic for us, it hurts. But we carry on, fighting for our rights, equality, and fair vaccine distribution.”

An analysis of Chicago public health data shows that white Chicagoans are receiving COVID-19 vaccinations at much faster rates than Black and Latino residents, who are significantly more likely to contract the virus, suffer severe illness or die. 

Since vaccination efforts began on Dec. 15 2020 in Chicago, 20% of those who got at least the first shot are Latinx, while 22% are Black, and approximately 47% are White, according to city data. The interactive map below shows exactly who is getting fully vaccinated, by ZIP code in the city. 

Vaccine distribution in Chicago is a microcosm of racial disparities nationwide. The U.S Census Bureau found that the vaccination rate in Chicago’s majority-Black or Latino ZIP codes averaged 5%. Majority-white ZIP codes averaged 13%. Four of the city’s majority-white ZIP codes exceeded 20% initial vaccination, while the highest rate for any majority Black or Latino area was 12%.

As of April 28th, Illinois has over 1.3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 24,174 deaths total. With the existence of 102 counties in Illinois, this means Cook County accounts for 40% of the state’s total with 529,165 cases and more than 10,000 deaths. 

Rising cases are becoming a growing concern for government officials as Illinois’ positivity rate jumped to 4.7% on April 27th, the highest recorded all year. The focus on vaccination distribution becomes integral to Restore Illinois, the state’s Phase 4 guidelines for reopening.

Public health officials reported as of April 28th that 30.61% of the Illinois population is now fully vaccinated, with 9,048,300 doses administered in total and the 7-day rolling average hiking up to 100,823.

However, a spike in coronavirus cases nationwide leads many health officials to believe we are entering a third wave of COVID-19 infections, driven by the emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants.

Dr. Howard Ehrman, a retired assistant professor of medicine at UIC, used to be assistant commissioner at the Chicago Department of Public Health and served as chief medical officer in Will County during the Ebola outbreak.

“We’re in such a mess that is getting worse, every minute that we’re talking, we’re losing the race against the variance in the United States and certainly the rest of the world,” he said. “We’re not getting the vaccine to the people who need it the most”.

Dr. Ehrman stresses, “that’s what’s really important. Not the first dose. You know, the president and the mayor and the governor like to talk about first doses. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is completed doses”. Below is a visual representation of the number of COVID-19 vaccine series completed by race/ethnicity in the City of Chicago. 

Pharmacy deserts in Chicago are making it tough for many to get the COVID-19 vaccine. This is yet another barrier people of color are faced with, according to data from the Chicago City Data Portal, there are fewer pharmacies on the South and West Sides than in North Side neighborhoods. 

This could potentially make it more difficult for tens of thousands of residents to get the vaccine. The data presented 395 pharmacies in Chicago, There are five areas of the city with less than one pharmacy per 10,000 residents. Three of them are on the South Side, the fourth is on the Far North Side, and the fifth is O’Hare Airport.

Ehrman labels the lack of pharmacies and access to the vaccine as criminal. “The last thing to understand is what’s wrong with the model of having people try to get a vaccine in a clinic, a hospital and pharmacy,” he said. “If you look at a map of Chicago or any other place in the United States, every zip code in the United States, it is primarily people of color, African Americans, Latinos have half as many clinics, pharmacies and hospitals or less. So why would you tell people to go there?”

The City of Chicago has developed a way to identify communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and are uniquely vulnerable to barriers to COVID-19 vaccine uptake. Vulnerability is defined under these terms: sociodemographic factors, epidemiological factors, occupational factors, and cumulative COVID burden. 

The Chicago CCVI is derived from ranking values of the 10 components by geography, then synthesizing them into a single composite weighted score. The higher the score, the more vulnerable the geographic area. The map below shows Chicago community boundaries ranked by their CCVI and corresponding vaccination availability locations. 

Both Castañeda and Ehrman agree that it’s the physical manner in which we’re approaching distribution that’s flawed. Both seek to advocate for bringing vaccines to the people, not the other way around. “Would you tell 100 workers at the amazon warehouse at 27th in Western to each go on their own to get a shot or would you bring in somebody to give the shots? All 100 people at the same time? You know, it’s just common sense”

Castañeda pointed out that when she was a young girl in Mexico, mass vaccinations were performed to prevent the spread of polio. Officials came to people’s houses and administered vaccines there. “They didn’t ask any questions and there were no hoops you needed to jump through”. This is a method she’d like to see enforced here in Chicago, decreasing barriers, helping those who are most at risk, and preventing the spread.

Ehrman argues that every neighborhood school, church, library, and park district should be available to serve as a public vaccination center, it should be as simple as when people go to vote. ‘That’s what has to happen now, and if it doesn’t happen, we’re gonna lose the race with the variants and the people who are going to suffer the most will be African Americans and the Latinx populations”.

Dolores Castañeda shares that her goal is to try and bring more vaccines to her community in Little Village, making sure they’re being distributed in an appropriate manner, in a safe space where people feel secure and not ashamed, help can be offered in English or Spanish and everyone is supported.

She also states her efforts include advocating for further social distancing and continuing to wear protective masks and face coverings, even if you’re already vaccinated. “How am I going to get across to my community that we are still in a pandemic and guidelines still apply and should be reinforced. There are still people getting the virus, there are still people dying."

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