A CTA Vaccine bus on the West Side. | Patrick Pyszka/Chicago Department of Public Health

A part of the West Side where residents are especially vulnerable to the pandemic has ramped up its vaccination rates, and local health leaders said consistent, one-on-one outreach is helping more people get their shots.

The patch of Garfield Park, Homan Square and North Lawndale making up the 60624 ZIP code logged the highest week-to-week increases in first-dose vaccination rates citywide for most of September, data from the Chicago Department of Public Health shows.

About 59.3 percent of residents living in the 60624 ZIP code have received at least one vaccine dose, and 51.2 percent are fully vaccinated, public health data show. In early August, just 50.7 percent of people had gotten one shot and 44.5 percent were fully vaccinated.

Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said in a livestream the areas where vaccine rates are making the biggest strides align with those that had previously lagged and had larger unvaccinated populations.

A Protect Chicago Plus vaccine site. | Chicago Mayor’s Office

“It is the neighborhoods where we have the most room to grow where we are seeing the most vaccinations being done in. Everything looks good,” Arwady said.

Efforts to improve vaccine uptake on the West Side have been led by West Side United, a collaborative of hospitals, residents and neighborhood groups aiming to eliminate disparities in health outcomes.

The collaborative has worked with local groups — like the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council and the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative — to “go to places where people are looking for help,” said LaDarius Curtis, senior director for community engagement at West Side United.

Empowering local groups to help meet the health needs of residents has been a critical factor in their success, Curtis said.

We must “make sure those community groups have a seat at the table when creating policy for the people they serve,” Curtis said.

The health collaborative also worked with local hospitals, neighborhood groups and medical providers to make the shots available and educate people about the vaccines. Bringing doses to people who have already decided they want to get vaccinated helps local groups build relationships with people who haven’t yet made up their minds, Curtis said.

“The outreach efforts to explain the vaccine to people one on one has been really helpful,” he said. “The people who have wanted the vaccine have been the most important. There have been residents, churches, block clubs that have really asked us to come out and administer the vaccine.”

A woman is vaccinated at Rush University System for Health. | Rush University System for Health

Rush University Medical Center is one of the hospital members of West Side United that has focused efforts on bringing vaccine access and health information to hard-to-reach populations in the area.

One of the biggest challenges has been “structural racism and a lack of trust in the health care system,” said Angela Moss, an assistant professor at Rush University’s college of community systems.

Black people still face disparities in health care: Black Chicagoans have lower life expectancies than white residents, dying an average of 8.8 years earlier. The maternal death rate for Black women in Chicago is more than 2.5 times higher than their white counterparts.

Skeptical residents won’t take the vaccines just because somebody tells them to, Moss said: Providers must earn the trust of residents by building relationships with them.

“It has to be consistently showing up where you’re an invested part of the community, not someone coming in and telling you what to do,” Moss said.

To overcome those barriers, Rush has leveraged a team of nurses, volunteers and community health workers who do extensive street outreach and host health events to meet people where they are at and overcome distrust in the vaccines, Moss said. The teams go door to door, join community events and visit churches and schools to reach people, Moss said.

“We’re just talking with people, sharing information about the vaccine and talking with people, meeting people where they are and talking about their vaccine hesitancy,” Moss said.

The success in increasing vaccine rates on the West Side highlights the effectiveness of health initiatives that are embedded in the community, especially for hard-to-reach populations, Moss said. But these kinds of strategies must also be continued beyond the pandemic to tackle longstanding health inequities that made some communities so much more vulnerable than others, she said.

“What we should learn from this is long term, these programs that promote public health and population health should continue to be funded,” Moss said. “We should celebrate this success and continue to support it even after the pandemic is over.”

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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