CHICAGO — Northa Johnson got her flu shot in the safety of her Streeterville home last week. But it was not easy.
Johnson has stage 4 COPD and has not left her house since March 4, 2020. Her illness puts her at greater risk of complications from COVID-19, so receiving a flu shot at home was crucial.
But just as Johnson struggled to get a coronavirus vaccine at home, she spent weeks trying to find someone who could give her a flu shot.
“I thought that after so long, and after finally figuring out how to administer COVID vaccines at home, someone would come up with a solutions for flu shot,” she said. “Especially now that you can get both at the same time.”
The city opened the homebound COVID-19 vaccination program in March 2021. Thousands of Chicagoans signed up, but the program hit snags in its earliest weeks. It took several weeks before many people heard anything from from the Chicago Department of Public Health about when they could get their shots.
Now, the program has expanded greatly, helping vaccinate thousands of people, and all Chicagoans can get vaccinated at home.
But the city does not have a similar program for at-home flu shots for at-risk people like Johnson, and publicly available information on how to get vaccinated against flu at home is scarce or conflicting.
Johnson reached out to the health department, other city agencies and all the local politicians she could think of. But, she said, the answer was always to go to Walgreens or CVS for a walk-in appointment.
“I kept telling them, ‘I’m not coming out,’ I don’t want to take any risk,” Johnson said.
Health department spokespeople said in an email homebound residents can receive their flu vaccine by scheduling an at-home visit via the Phalanx Family Services hotline. Laura Erving-Bailey, director of operations at Phalanx, told Block Club residents can schedule at-home appointments for flu shots.
However, the service doesn’t seem to be advertised anywhere, and there is no available information about it online. The nonprofit’s website and social media accounts don’t mention at-home flu shots. Erving-Bailey provided flyers about the organization’s flu shots, but the flyers only mention walk-in appointments and don’t have information about at-home shots.
Nobody from the Phalanx hotline was immediately available to comment.
Johnson said she was never referred to Phalanx by the city, and that she had never heard of it before.
Johnson thought she finally reached a solution when Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) spoke to Johnson’s pastor and referred her to MobileVAX, a service for homebound citizens that advertises flu shots on its website.
Johnson said she booked two appointments with the organization before finding out over the phone MobileVAX doesn’t administer flu shots at home. Its website has since been updated and doesn’t mention flu shots.
MobileVAX did not respond to requests for comment.
Johnson finally managed to get her flu shot Nov. 29 through a friend of a friend who is a nurse and agreed to visit Johnson at home.
It is not the first time Johnson has to be vocal about the lack of options for homebound citizens to safely receive vaccines, nor the first time she’s had to find an alternative to city services.
Last year, when Johnson was unable to get a COVID-19 vaccine through the health department’s program, she connected with community organization My Block, My Hood, My City, which referred her to InstaVaxx. She recently got her booster shot through the same service.
“I cannot believe nothing has been put in place over the last year,” Johnson said. “And I cannot even begin to thank the two beautiful women that helped me. I have a very strong village around me, for everything I need, but not everybody is as lucky.”
Both experiences have left Johnson feeling the city is not doing enough to prioritize care for some of its most vulnerable residents with fewest resources.
“I don’t mind getting on people’s nerves to let them now what I need. A closed mouth doesn’t get fed,” Johnson said. “I wish they’d act as though it mattered to them and their family, and treat it that way.”
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