CHICAGO — Northa Johnson hasn’t left her Steeterville home in 400 days.
Johnson has stage 4 COPD, which means she’s at increased risk of severe illness or death from coronavirus. She’s stayed home to stay safe, continuing her volunteer work and hobbies from afar — but she saw a light at the end of the tunnel when Chicago announced in early March it would start vaccinating homebound people.
“I can’t come out. I’m not gonna risk my life. And that’s what I’d be doing” by going to a vaccination clinic, Johnson said. “I’m not gonna just get sick [with COVID-19]. I’d be in the hospital. And I’m not gonna do that.”
Johnson signed up for the city’s homebound vaccination program March 4, the very same morning it was announced, excited to get her shot and know she’d be safe to venture outside again.
But it’s been more than a month since then — and Johnson hasn’t heard anything back.
Waiting For Vaccines
More than 4,100 people have signed up for the Chicago Department of Public Health’s homebound vaccination program; so far, 612 people have gotten vaccinated, said spokesman Andrew Buchanan.
The program is meant to be used only by people who — due to their advanced age, a disability or a medical impairment — cannot leave home, as well as their caregivers. Those categories also generally cover the people who are most at risk from coronavirus.
But some homebound people told Block Club they’ve signed up only to get radio silence from the health department. They don’t know when or how they’ll get vaccinated — and fear that, after more than a year of being cooped up inside, they’ll still have to wait months to get shots while Chicagoans who are less at risk are getting vaccinated, going out and seeing loved ones.
Last month, Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the health department, said the program will take time, with officials vaccinating homebound people “well into the fall.”
“It’s not like we’re not committed to this group; we are,” Arwady said last month. “But it is going to take months to get this group fully vaccinated.”
Arwady said vaccinations through the program would take until the fall because the doses are administered by Fire Department paramedics and volunteer medical crews, who can only go to people’s homes to do a few vaccinations per day.
But on Wednesday, spokeswoman Lauren Foley said the health department has received “additional resources and manpower” for the program. That means health department officials anticipate being able to vaccinate a “significant amount” of people registered through April and have a goal of vaccinating all those who have registered for the program by the end of May.
“In an effort to reach more people who qualify for this program and scale up operations, we have begun partnering with various other city agencies … as well as community organizations to identify the individuals who would benefit from this program and to begin scheduling those who are on the waitlist,” Foley said in an emailed statement.
But Johnson said it feels like the city doesn’t care about her or other homebound people at all. She’s applied for the program multiple times and tried contacting the health department, but never got a response or information about when she might get vaccinated. The most she’s gotten is an email confirming her applications for the program.
Johnson also tracks the news and follows the health department, but they never provide updates on the program or homebound people, she said.
“It ticks me off,” she said. “We’re the one group, the one population you never hear them mention on the news. There are never any statistics about us. And they act like we don’t exist.”
Anne Spiselman, of West Town, has a similar story: She hasn’t been able to leave her home since March 12, 2020, because she has a disability and post-polio syndrome, which puts her at increased risk from COVID-19. She was excited about the homebound vaccination program and signed up March 5.
And like Johnson, Spiselman said she has heard nothing from the city since then.
Spiselman has contacted the health department, looking for answers, but was only told to apply again.
“To me, this sounds like an awfully good program and one that I really needed — but if nothing is happening with it, they shouldn’t mislead people,” Spiselman said. “Because those of us who are really homebound, we need this. And every day, we’re barraged with, ‘Get vaccinated, get vaccinated, get vaccinated, especially if you’re among the elderly.’ To have something like this dangled and then have nothing happen is very frustrating.
“I don’t want to have to wait ’til fall to get vaccinated.”
‘This … Should Not Be So Difficult’
Spiselman said she’s only been able to see two people since March 2020: her caregiver and a handyman.
The West Town resident hasn’t been able to leave her home for necessary doctor’s appointments, dental visits or trips to see loved ones.
Spiselman has kept busy by reading stories from around the world on the internet and by writing her weekly theater column for the Hyde Park Herald.
“Occasionally, like, I’m sure, everyone, I feel sad and depressed,” she said. But mostly she feels frustration and irritation “at the city for not doing anything. In a way, it’s a form of discrimination.”
Spiselman can’t risk leaving her home to get vaccinated, and a disability she has makes it so she physically cannot leave.
But she is still desperate to get the shot from the safety of her home and resume a more normal life. She’s “keenly aware” of how important vaccines are because she got polio just a few months before a polio vaccine was developed when she was a child, she said.
“This whole thing should not be so difficult,” she said. “And it seems to me also that the powers that be never seem to do things in the ways that make the most sense.”
Spiselman is still waiting to get vaccinated.
Johnson has been luckier — no thanks to the city.
Like Spiselman, Johnson has kept busy at home during the past year, continuing her work as a volunteer coordinator with a Rogers Park group, though she’d like to be able to safely see people and go out.
Since vaccines became available, Johnson’s looked everywhere and repeatedly contacted the city’s health leaders to try to get her shots at home. With no answers coming from the health department, she looked for other sources.
“If I need it, there are plenty of other people” who need it, she said. “If you look at the people who get in-home care, these in-home helpers, we are a huge population. I’m not hearing anything about us.”
Someone from My Block, My Hood, My City heard about Johnson through her network of loved ones. He reached out to her, offering her a ride to a vaccination appointment — but Johnson explained she could not safely leave her home.
Instead, My Block, My Hood, My City passed on Johnson’s information to InstaVaxx, a new company providing limited in-home vaccinations for people in need.
A doctor and nurses from InstaVaxx came to Johnson’s home on Easter Sunday, administered her first dose and gave her a bouquet of chocolate tulips to celebrate, she said.
InstaVaxx CEO Capri Reese said Johnson was the first homebound person they’ve vaccinated, but they plan to do more. They’re looking at vaccinating homebound people on Sundays, when their clinics are closed, Reese said.
People in need can sign up to get a shot through InstaVaxx online. Homebound people who are older can also sign up online with My Block, My Hood, My City and the group will try to coordinate in-home vaccinations for them through InstaVaxx.
As of now, there appear to be few — and perhaps no — other vaccination options for people who are forced to stay home.
Though Johnson is excited she got her first shot and has her second dose scheduled, she’s frustrated by the city’s program — and the radio silence she’s gotten. She joked she was only able to get vaccinated while other homebound people have had to wait because she has a “big mouth.”
The city’s “not doing enough. They’re not even really trying,” Johnson said. “One of my mottos is, ‘A closed mouth doesn’t get fed.’ I think about baby birds in the nest. Who gets the worm? That’s why I just kept calling.”
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