A mass vaccination site at Catalyst Circle Rock charter school, 116 N. Central Ave. in Austin, was a vehicle for cross-cultural exchange last week, when five nursing students from Dominican University in nearby River Forest volunteered to assist with providing shots to Chicago residents. 

Since February, Chicago’s Protect Chicago Plus initiative has been working with local hospitals to set up pop-up clinics in majority Black and majority Hispanic neighborhoods, where residents already face healthcare disparities and the number of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths has been higher than the city average. The sites are open to all community residents age 18 and up who register ahead of time.

The Circle Rock site, which launched on March 14, is operated by the Chicago-based Rush University System for Health. It will be open on Sundays, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., until April 18.  

The five nursing students said that they were grateful for the opportunity to help, especially after seeing first-hand how eager many residents were to get vaccinated. 

Dr. Tamara Bland, the director of Dominican’s nursing program, explained that, during the final semester of their senior year, all nursing students are placed at different inpatient and outpatient sites in Chicago and the suburbs. It gives the students an opportunity to put everything they learned to practical use.

“They’re providing vaccinations and doing health education, while also unitizing their critical thinking skills, leadership and management skills,” Bland said. “It gives them an opportunity to unitize their [knowledge].”

As vaccine eligibility widened at the end of January, Dominican University President Donna Caroll reached out to Dr. David Ansell, Rush’s vice president for Community Health and Equity, to see if they could do anything to help vaccinate residents in communities Protect Chicago Plus set out to help. The two institutions quickly agreed to have Dominican students volunteer at Rush University Health Center, 1620 W. Harrison St., and at the Circle Rock vaccination site. 

“We were thrilled when we were notified that Austin was one of the [locations],” Bland said. “We know from just watching those news and being practicing nurses, that it was one of the marginalized communities that were disproportionately impacted by COVID.”  

Dominican University student Mhaylee Jimenez gets ready to vaccinate a West Side resident in Austin on March 21. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff

Students started working at the vaccination sites on March 21. The interviews held a few days ahead of time revealed a group that came from diverse backgrounds and got into nursing for personal reasons. 

Mhaylee Jimenez grew up in Cicero and currently lives in Maywood. She said that the major reason why she decided to become a nursing student was because she grew up in a community where most people didn’t go to college and the only clinic in the area “[had] one nurse, one doctor and one dentist seeing everyone who lived there.

“I saw how much they struggled to see all the patients and thought to myself, ‘One day, I’m going to be a medical professional and I will come back to help them out,’” Jimenez said. 

Alice Gicela, who lives in Jefferson Park, said she got into nursing because of her experiences after she was diagnosed with cancer when she was nine years old.

“Being a nursing student right now is incredibly difficult, because I wish I could be out on the frontlines to directly help patients,” she said. 

Most of the Dominican nursing students already have hands-on experience with vaccinations. Jimenez works as a nursing assistant at Rush Oak Park hospital in Oak park. Gicela previously volunteered to vaccinate patients at North Lawndale’s Mt. Sinai hospital.

On March 21, the lines were short and the crowds were slow, but steady. Annie Mellett admitted that she was initially nervous to get the vaccination, but glad she ultimately decided to do so.

“It feels really good,” she said. “It was easy. It didn’t hurt.”

Shirlee Whitten said she tried signing up at several vaccination sites, including the United Center’s mass vaccination site and was impressed at how easy signing up was with Rush.

“When I called Rush, I got an answer and an appointment, so I’m grateful, very grateful,” she said. “I feel good [about getting the vaccine]. It’s better to have it than to not have it.” 

Belinda Jones, who live-streamed her own vaccination on her phone, said that “it was easy, easier than I thought.”