A Protect Chicago Plus vaccination facility. West Siders want more vaccine sites as temporary sites close. (Block Club Chicago)

West Side groups are trying to bring a vaccination clinic to Austin as the city closes its temporary neighborhood sites despite surging coronavirus cases.

The Austin area had two Protect Chicago Plus sites where any adult residents could get vaccinated. The program was meant to help neighborhoods hit hard by the pandemic, ensuring vaccines were provided in those areas. But each Protect Chicago Plus site was set to last just eight weeks — and Austin’s already phased out first doses and is working on completing people’s course of second doses.

Some residents are scrambling to figure out where they can get shots as cases are spiking. Nearly 600 cases are being reported per day in Chicago — a 24 percent jump just from a week ago.

At the same time, the neighborhood’s main community health center, Loretto Hospital, is not administering first doses because it’s been embroiled in scandals for giving the shots to ineligible people outside Austin — including a doctor’s family in the suburbs and people at a luxury jewelry store in Gold Coast.

The city-run sites and other pop-up vaccination clinics have been helpful in making the vaccines accessible to locals. But there needs to be a permanent location for vaccinations in the neighborhood, said Cassandra Norman, president of South Austin Neighborhood Association.

“Now that people are more educated, everything is kind of dried up. Now they have to search for it or go out of the neighborhood,” Norman said. “Austin needs a standard location at all times where you know you can go and get a shot … right here in your community. Especially since this area has been impacted the way it has been. And we should not be punished for what happened with Loretto.”

In particular, older people who are most vulnerable to coronavirus are struggling to access the vaccines since it’s harder for them to travel out of the neighborhood, Norman said.

Neighborhood groups have received little guidance from the city on how residents can access vaccination appointments locally now that the Protect Chicago Plus sites in Austin aren’t scheduling first-dose appointments, said James Coleman, director of community wellness for Westside Health Authority.

“The city has not communicated with community-based organizations at all,” Coleman said. “We need to be at the table when these decisions are being made … . The city has not been inclusive in this process. And I think that’s been a pattern.”

“We were seeing some apprehension” about the vaccines when the city-run sites in Austin opened, Coleman said. But now that many people in Austin are more comfortable with getting vaccinated, the window to make appointments at the local city sites has closed, Coleman said.

Most local health centers — including PCC Wellness, Access Community Wellness and West Suburban Medical Center — are only vaccinating established patients since vaccine supply is still limited.

“There absolutely should be an identified clinic or location in the Austin community so when individuals decide to get the vaccine, they can get vaccinated. There’s still demand for the vaccines,” Coleman said.

Austin’s vaccination rate is behind that of the rest of the city, according to city health department data. About 31 percent of Chicago residents had gotten their first dose as of Sunday — but in the 60644 ZIP code, which encompasses South Austin, only 20.8 percent of people have gotten their first shot.

The city’s temporary vaccine clinics in Austin were highly effective in boosting vaccination rates, said health department spokesperson Elena Ivanova. Since the initiative launched in Austin, first-dose vaccination rates have increased by 287 percent in Austin, compared to a 239 percent increase citywide.

Although the Austin Protect Chicago Plus sites were phased out, the health department will stage vaccination events and launch additional equity-driven strategies to boost vaccine rates in target neighborhoods, Ivanova said. The city will share those plans in coming weeks, she said.

Austin residents are also prioritized for appointments at the United Center vaccination site, Ivanova said, and the city is offering free Uber and CTA rides to make it easier to travel across town to make the appointments. Residents can call 312-746-4835 to book an appointment at the United Center.

Doses have also been allocated to pharmacies and providers in the area, and appointments can be made on ZocDoc, Ivanova said.

Demand for the vaccine is still high across the West Side, said Donald Dew, president of Habilitative Systems Inc., a health organization that has focused on increasing vaccine access for people with mental illness, substance use disorders and developmental disabilities.

Many people have also had trouble scheduling appointments due to confusion over eligibility, Dew said.

Community-based vaccine sites are needed since they can reach people where they’re at and can lead to a “decrease in fear [and] distrust by activating more trusted messengers,” Dew said.

“Given the increase in the positivity rate, I am hopeful vaccine availability will continue to increase,” Dew said.

Chicago’s positivity rate is up to 5.1 percent — which officials previously said was a sign coronavirus was spreading unchecked.

The city’s vaccine clinics in North Lawndale made it easy for local residents to get the shot, said Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer (2nd). But as the city’s Protect Chicago Plus have started to wind down, “certainly there is still concern about vaccinations in Lawndale,” Deer said.

The West Side needs more local vaccine options to improve access, Deer said. But it’s not only up to local governments: health centers, pharmacies, neighborhood groups and companies need to be on board to create long-term accessibility to the vaccines, he said.

“This is all hands on deck, not only with vaccinations but also with education,” Deer said. “Underserved communities are the ones that are always left out and it is our job to make sure that doesn’t keep happening.” 

CONTACT: pascal@blockclubchi.org