It was not even 2 a.m. when people began to line up outside a Little Village church Sunday in hopes of getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
By 8 a.m., dozens of umbrellas lined more than four blocks in one of the Chicago neighborhoods hardest hit by the coronavirus as people waited their turn, a turn many of them had thought would never come.
By the end of the day, more than 1,000 residents, the majority Latinos — many people gave up their spot for their parents and grandparents — received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
“Me da esperanza,” said 63-year-old Antonia Quinones, “It gives me hope.”
“After so much obliviousness by leaders all over, we feel like we are being seen right now, but it was after demanding and fighting for this, we made this happen for ourselves,” Quinones said in Spanish.
Quinones and other members of her family, who became ill with COVID-19 last March, all got vaccinated.
“We want the vaccine, we need it, but we just don’t know how to get it or where,” Quinones said. “And some people may just need to learn more about it before they decide to get it.”
Despite efforts by the city to make the shots available to every resident of areas most affected by the virus, regardless of whether they meet other standards to be vaccinated, some Latinos are still having trouble getting the vaccine while those in other hard-hit communities continue to wait for it.
Community leaders say hesitancy about the vaccine plays a role in keeping some Latinos from getting inoculated even where it is available. But language and technology barriers also are discouraging people from seeking an appointment or even learning more about the vaccine.
Recently, a group of more than 40 community organizations called on the Chicago Department of Public Health to expand its initiative for high-risk neighborhoods to more communities and improve its approach to reaching Spanish-speaking Latinos as well as Black residents.
Angelica Rivera, 72, didn’t plan on getting the vaccine even though she was eligible, until she heard from one of her sisters that she could get it at the school gym at St. Agnes of Bohemia Catholic Church, the same church where she attends Mass every Sunday.
Rivera said she was initially reluctant to get the shot because she was scared after hearing from co-workers that “the vaccine was made to kill poor people.”
Instead, she was willing to rely on her faith to remain healthy. That’s what many of her friends are doing, she said.
But Sunday morning, she changed her mind and walked over to the church to request some information. She eventually decided to register to get the vaccine.
“It just felt right to get it here,” Rivera said right after getting vaccinated.
“I did it for my family because I want to make sure I see them again,” added the mother of eight and grandmother of 43, now trusting that her faith in God led her to the right decision.
The initial strategy for distribution of the vaccine put in place in Chicago failed to account for language barriers, lack of technology access and work schedules in Black and Latino communities, and that contributed to mistrust that already existed, said Dolores Castaneda. Misinformation spread faster than proper resources and scientific facts from the start of the pandemic, and that’s contributed to mistrust, Castaneda said.
Most information campaigns and announcements about vaccine availability have been centered on social media, so many older Latinos without a smartphone or internet may not even know vaccines are available in their area or that they are eligible regardless of their age or job, she said.
And even if people hear about the vaccine on TV or on the radio, people are often left with unanswered questions that discourage them from seeking an appointment, she said.
Castaneda is a leader of Mi Villita, an organization that was created to combat a lack of attention from local officials to issues the Latino immigrant community faces and that put together Sunday’s vaccination clinic. It took only a week for Mi Villita to work with Walgreens to plan and promote the vaccinations at the St. Agnes gym.
Castaneda gathered volunteers and walked the streets of the neighborhood, going into laundromats, grocery stores and the neighborhood discount mall to inform people, as well as posting fliers and calling area seniors.
“We wanted to make them feel welcomed and reduce their fear of the vaccine,” Castaneda said.
At the event, volunteers helped to fill out the forms and simplified questions as much as possible to help people intimidated by inquiries about identification and health insurance. When Walgreens ran out of forms in Spanish, the volunteers stepped up to translate.
By the end of the day Sunday, 1,170 residents of the 60623 ZIP code, which has seen 240 deaths during the pandemic, had received their first dose of vaccine.
“We didn’t have enough to give to all the people that wanted the vaccine,” added Izquierdo. “So we hope others see why this event was so special: People feel empowered and feel less skeptical when they see their neighbor, friend or family getting the vaccine in a familiar place to them.”
Most people have questions about the vaccine, “so they need to be engaged and educated about it,” Figueroa said.
But “how can we expect to have these conversations with people and encourage them to be vaccinated if the people who are driving the conversations don’t even speak their language?” asked Izquierdo.
Castaneda said some people are reluctant to get the vaccine because of failings in the way public health agencies serve Black and Latino communities, “and the only way to eliminate it is by coming into their neighborhoods, eliminate the barriers and give the vaccine.”
“The city did not consider us a priority until health advocates began to point out the disparities and racist distribution of the vaccine,” Castaneda said.
Initial data on vaccine distribution in Illinois showed whites received a disproportionate number of vaccines. In Chicago, white affluent neighborhoods on the North Side and downtown had the highest number of people vaccinated, while South and West Side communities were stalling on vaccine distribution.
In response to the racial disparity data, the city created the Protect Chicago Plus initiative, which provides mass vaccination events to 15 communities hit hardest by the pandemic. Andy Buchanan, a spokesperson for the city health department, said the areas included in the program are those most burdened by the COVID-19 pandemic based on the city’s COVID-19 vulnerability index.
But advocates said in a recent letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot that the index relies too heavily on census data, “a data source well known to undercount undocumented populations.”
“Also, the use of hospitalization rates is problematic given that Latinx communities are less likely to seek medical attention in the hospital and have higher rates of dying at home,” it says.
In an emailed statement, Buchanan said the city is collaborating with community partners, faith leaders, health care providers and employers to reach all vulnerable populations. The city is phone and text banking, going door to door and more to connect people to vaccine appointments, he said.
“While we still have work to do, we are seeing significant progress,” Buchanan said, adding that rates of vaccination are starting to better reflect the racial makeup of the city, with half of all doses now going to Black and Latino Chicagoans.
But some neighborhoods that are at high risk have been left out, said Alonso Zaragoza, a community organizer and founder of Belmont Cragin United, a Facebook group that has served as a resource center for residents in the most affected ZIP code in Chicago. Groups throughout the city have been trying to counteract the disparities, often through online outreach.
Thousands of residents were able to sign up to get the vaccine because of information shared on Zaragoza’s page in Spanish and English. Hundreds of children sent messages to inquire about shots for their parents and grandparents, Zaragoza said. He registered every resident he could for vaccines.
“It’s heartwarming to be able to help and I’m glad that my community is finally getting what they need, but there’s gotta be a different way to reach them and make it easier for them to access these vaccines,” he said. “Not only to facilitate access but to also help them feel more comfortable getting it. There is so much misinformation out there.”