Hundreds of Little Village residents lined the block around St. Agnes of Bohemia Catholic Church in February, in hopes of getting a COVID-19 vaccine during a pop-up event held by Mi Villita Neighbors and Walgreens. Credit: Mauricio Peña/ Block Club Chicago

CITYWIDE — A coalition of community groups from across the city is calling on the Chicago Department of Public Health to open more permanent, city-run vaccination sites in hard-hit communities.

For months, The People’s Response Network has been urging city officials to bring city-run vaccination sites to communities devastated by the ongoing pandemic, rather than having just one super site on the Near West Side at the United Center, which follows different eligibility from the rest of the city and sometimes has been marred by confusion.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) introduced a measure Wednesday to spend $180 million in federal stimulus funds on new vaccination sites that would also increase staffing at the health department, which has had its busiest year ever. Another alderman relegated the ordinance to the council’s rules committee, making it unlikely it will ever see and up and down vote.

Sigcho-Lopez called the ordinance the “most important legislation in front of the council in recent months,” and pointed to scandals with vaccine distribution at Loretto Hospital and Innovative Express Care as examples of why a city-run process would be more equitable.

Block Club has been reporting on a series of improper vaccination events hosted by Loretto, in which the West Side hospital’s CEO and COO brought vaccines to wealthy and well-connected friends outside the neighborhood, even though the need and demand for vaccines throughout the West Side remains high.

“We need doctors, we need nurses, and we need accountability from the Chicago Department of Public Health, who is fully responsible for this process,” Sigcho-Lopez said.

The ordinance calls on the city to create easy-to-access vaccination sites in the 26 hardest-hit communities on the South and West Sides, as identified by the city earlier this year. While the health department has hosted pop-up clinics in many of these areas, dubbed Protect Chicago Plus, a permanent outpost would ensure more people know where to go to get vaccinated and can get there more easily, especially when two doses are needed.

The city-run clinics would also allow for more oversight — and fewer instances of small hospitals or clinics skirting the rules, he said.

According to the proposed ordinance, vaccination sites should be located in public spaces including schools, park district field houses and polling places. The measure would also create community health promoters and vaccine brigades to educate and vaccinate residents in the hardest-hit communities, said Dr. Howard Ehrman, professor at the University of Illinois Chicago and co-founder of the group.

Ehrman said the ordnance would save “thousands of lives” while creating good paying jobs.

In backing the measure, Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd) said the “privatization of services and the lack of investment in communities” had been “devastating” to Black and Latino communities.

In December — when the vaccinations started — officials estimated about 53 percent of vaccinated Chicagoans were white, 14 percent Asian, 15 percent Black and 17 percent Latino. Those numbers have since improved, but communities that saw the most COVID-19 deaths still lag behind whiter neighborhoods less impacted by the virus.

Amara Enyia, a former mayoral candidate and community activist who is supporting the ordinance, said systemic changes were needed to ensure vulnerable communities could access the vaccine. 

“What we are seeing, the patchwork way, in which the vaccine is being rolled out is harming communities that need access to the vaccine the most,” Enyia said. 

Some great work is being done by federally qualified health centers, local pharmacies and some of the health centers that had been given vaccine doses by the city, Enyia said, but the system as it is lacks accountability and accessibility.

She added that the ordinance was an opportunity for the city to demonstrate a willingness to build “a systems-based approach that knits together all the different partners that are responsible for getting the vaccine to the community … and take a community-driven approach.”

“Our goal … as a city should be to meet people where they are,” Enyia said.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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Pilsen, Little Village and West Loop reporterrnrnmauricio@blockclubchi.orgnnPilsen, Little Village and West Loop Twitter @MauricioPena