Pilot program targets most vulnerable for vaccinations, doesn't follow priority list

Vaccine Pilot Program
Posted at 11:27 AM, Feb 24, 2021

CHICAGO — A pilot program aimed at getting COVID-19 shots to the hardest hit communities could become a model for mass vaccination programs. Unlike other vaccination sites that limit who gets inoculated by priority, this one tosses those requirements out completely.

With just a temperature check and some key information, you’re in line to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

In a hard-hit community on Chicago’s northwest side, it doesn't matter if you’re 1A, B or C. Anyone over the age of 18 who lives there is eligible.

“Just as we would think about prioritizing seniors, this is a bold move to say, ‘we need to prioritize these communities,’” said Dr. Ali Khan, Executive Medical Director of Oak Street Health, a national network of primary care centers dedicated to the care of low-income vulnerable seniors in mostly Black and brown populations.

They are working with community groups in Chicago to target hard-hit communities like the Latino majority Belmont Cragin neighborhood.

“Houses are small, social distancing is hard. Isolation is even more challenging and many essential workers live here,” said Khan.

Alexis Villanueva’s mother is an essential worker. She and seven family members living under the same roof all contracted the virus.

“She didn’t get any symptoms. And then she came home and when we noticed that she had COVID-19, we already had all been exposed, so we had to quarantine for about a month,” said Villanueva.

The second-year college student, her parents and grandmother have now all been vaccinated through the pilot program.

“People are asking, you know, why have doses been allocated for this community,” said Khan. “Systems that are purely first-come first-serve, we know and we have seen, advantage those with the time, the technology and the transportation.”

About 82% of the population in the Belmont Cragin community is Latino.

“We lost a lot of residents. We lost a lot of head of households in this community,” said Vanessa Valentine, Director of Community Relations for Chicago’s 36th ward that includes the Belmont Cragin neighborhood.

Blacks and Latinos are among the hardest hit by the pandemic in numbers of cases and deaths. Yet, vaccine hesitation is also highest amongst this group. It's why volunteers have gone door-to-door to convince people to sign up.

“We know them from the schools, from the community. So, that's how we got the word out. So, then we're able to verify who they are,” said James Rudyk, Executive Director of the Northwest Side Housing Center, one of the outreach partners of the program.

He says people seeking vaccinations only need to have an appointment and some form of address verification, like a phone bill to get in.

“We're not being super strict, because we know that having a strict ID requirement would actually dissuade a lot of our undocumented or mixed status families,” said Rudyk.

During the first two weekends in operation, some 4,000 people got shots – surpassing the two-month total of people vaccinated there through traditional programs.

It’s a highly targeted eight-week campaign with a lofty goal of vaccinating 10% of the population there, according to Dr. Khan.

“To move the needle on getting us to herd immunity, that is the goal. And the more brown and Black lives we can protect from this, the better.”