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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

After Year Of Pandemic, West Side Health Collaborative Credits ‘Power Of Partnership’ To Battle Health Disparities

West Side United, led by a partnership of six hospitals, is working to close the life expectancy gap between Black and white Chicagoans. But when COVID hit, it pivoted to tackle those unique challenges, too.

File Photo: Rush University Medical Center in Chicago in late March 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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WEST SIDE — As West Siders have struggled through the coronavirus pandemic, a group of neighborhood health organizations supported food pantries and businesses, connected older people with testing and treatment and helped hundreds of locals find jobs to deliver health care to their community during the crisis.

The West Side United health collaborative, which includes six equity-focused hospitals, convened in 2017 to erase the health disparities that leave West Side residents with a drastically shorter lifespan than Chicagoans living Downtown and in wealthier, white neighborhoods.

West Garfield Park residents live to an average age of 69 years old, according to a 2015 Virginia Commonwealth University report. The life expectancy of people living in the Loop is 16 years longer: 85.

The collaborative’s focus has been on making it easier to access clinical care, as well as examining the underlying circumstance that cause poor health, including unemployment, education and the physical environments of the 10 West Side neighborhoods targeted by the initiative.

“It’s not just behavioral choices. It’s access to healthy foods,” Debra Wesley, executive director of Sinai Community Institute, said at an annual community meeting. “The neighborhood and physical environment play a key role. Education plays a key role. Economic security plays a major role.”

When early data on coronavirus infections and deaths showed Black and Latino communities, including those on the West Side, were disproportionately burdened by the pandemic, West Side United pivoted to tackle those disparities, as well.

The group was part of a Racial Equity Rapid Response Team with health providers to guide the city’s response to the pandemic and to share resources and strategies between hospitals in the most impacted communities. The team planned rental assistance programs, hosted virtual town halls and did community engagement that brought more than 75,000 people into the fold.

The organization’s ongoing Live Healthy Chicago initiative supported older people vulnerable to the pandemic with food security programs, testing, treatment, personal protective equipment and wellness calls. The initiative was funded by a $5 million donation from the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation.

West Side United’s career initiatives helped coordinate 148 internships at member hospitals in 2020, the group reported. Partner hospitals have hired 2,840 employees from the West Side, and the collaborative’s goal is to reach 5,000 local hires within the next two years.

Other programs gave $210,000 in funding to local food pantries to feed tens of thousands of people struggling with food insecurity due to the pandemic, and $500,000 in grants to help keep small businesses on the West Side afloat.

“We’ve emerged one year later more determined and hopeful to attain our big, hairy, audacious goal of decreasing the life expectancy gap … despite the setbacks presented by COVID-19,” said Ayesha Jaco, West Side United executive director. “We acknowledge the power of partnership. We acknowledge the power of the people.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city’s “recent success in equitable vaccine distribution is directly drawn from the lessons we learned and applied from West Side United.”

The Protect Chicago Plus program was born out of the response team’s talks with the city, according to group leaders and Lightfoot. That initiative established weeks-long pop-up vaccination sites in 15 South and West side communities hit hardest by coronavirus, reserving a portion of vaccines for residents in those areas.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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