Five bays are set up at Hyde Park Friend Health's gymnasium, where Moderna vaccines from the federal government are being given to the center's patients.
The needle goes in and out of 88-year-old Christine Johnson's arm so fast that a Herald photographer misses the shot. It's the Far South Side resident's second dose.
Her granddaughter, Nicole Wright, who lives in Gage Park, had booked an appointment for a physical at Friend Health, and the clinic asked her if she wanted a COVID-19 vaccine (she qualified because of her ZIP code). She is undecided as to whether she will take the vaccine, but Johnson wanted one.
"I had said I wasn't going to get the vaccination," Johnson said, "and then a friend of mine had it — he's a veteran, and he went to the VA. I live in a senior building, and he said if I didn't get the shot, that I wouldn't see him anymore."
So Wright made the appointment for her, and Johnson got her shot.
"I have had no problems at all," she said. "I think everybody should get it, that's how I feel about it. I think everybody should get this shot to protect everybody. If I don't get it, and she doesn't get it and she doesn't get it, how is that healthy? It's not. You've got to get it, and I feel that everybody should get the shot. They're trying to help everybody. There've been too many deaths from this."
What had been a trickle of vaccines has become a flow, and while demand still outstrips supply in Chicago, at least three sites in Hyde Park — the University of Chicago Medical Center, the Friend Health Cottage Grove clinic, 800 E. 55th St., and the Howard Brown Health clinic, 1525 E. 55th St. — are offering appointments, though still not on a walk-in basis.
Some 84% of Chicagoans are eligible for the vaccine now, and, as more people get vaccinated and manufacturing capacity increases, supply will outstrip demand, turning a commodity akin to concert tickets into something like a flu shot.
WBEZ has reported that, as of March 12, the Chicago Department of Public Health distributed 2,400 doses of vaccine to ZIP code 60653, 5,900 to 60615, 61,850 to 60637 — the third most in the city — and 5,628 to 60649.
As of the end of March, the University of Chicago Medical Center had administered vaccine doses to 42,485 people: 28,129 patients, 11,321 University of Chicago Medicine employees, 1,788 university employees and 1,247 other health care workers.
About 4,000 people got their first doses over the last week of March. Out of the South Siders who have received at least one dose, 76% are Black or Latino. Appointments are running late into the evening.
In an internal email, Dean Dr. Kenneth S. Polonsky and UCMC President Tom Jackiewicz said outreach and education to eligible patients is continuing, with medical students calling some patients directly, "mindful of technological barriers that may preclude some of our oldest patients from accessing an appointment."
“Meanwhile,” they wrote, “other eligible patients are receiving counseling during scheduled clinical appointments, and our Call Center and MyChart teams are redoubling their outreach with calls, text messages and other patient alerts.”
Beginning in late March, when Friend Health began getting vaccines from the federal government, the network started vaccinating out of its Cottage Grove clinic in Hyde Park, 800 E. 55th St. At first, shots were chiefly being given at the 5635 S. Pulaski Road location, due to the city's allocation of resources in the "Protect Chicago Plus" program. Strategy and development head Wendy Thompson said a few patients might have been vaccinated at the Woodlawn clinic, 1522 E. 63rd St., too, and that the network is planning wider distribution there as well.
As it stands, Friend Health has begun targeted outreach to patients in ZIP codes in and around Hyde Park who qualify for vaccines under Phase 1C.
"When you reach out to your patients electronically over text with a link, oftentimes it shares more broadly. And that's fine," Thompson said. "The intent was to target the general area first, and we've done a pretty good job of doing that. We do get other individuals in, and once the link is out, it's live, and we continue to add additional appointments as we are sure of our vaccine allocation and our capacity."
The Cottage Grove clinic sees approximately 20,000 patients a year. Right now, Thompson said it is a balancing act between providing primary care and unrestricted vaccine access for the general public.
"Demand has been such so far that we have not done widespread, public promotions, just because we don't want to create this huge demand and not be able to meet it," she said.
Network-wide, Friend Health wants to do 1,000 vaccines a day, with a link online where people can book an appointment themselves. She said staff will need to be brought on to put those doses into arms but that more and more slots will come online every week.
Charles Vann, from Oak Lawn, had COVID-19 a year ago, but he also got a message to come for an appointment from Friend Health. A diabetic in his 60s, he was eager to get vaccinated and pleased at the ease of getting his shot at the Hyde Park clinic, compared to the "hornet's nest" of trying to get it at a chain pharmacy.
"I was laid up for four weeks. I ended up having to go to the emergency room because I was dehydrated and wasn't getting any better," he remembered. "They say the only way we can get back to some kind of normalcy is if we get vaccinated, because it builds up our immune system against the virus." (Scientists have suggested that vaccine-derived immunity is stronger and more-lasting than immunity after one recovers from the coronavirus.)
Vann said he was himself skeptical of getting vaccinated after recovering from COVID-19, though seeing people get reinfected with the coronavirus changed his mind. He wants to protect himself and high-risk friends and family members. And besides, "That darn shot, it was over like this," he said with a snap of his fingers.
Dr. Anu Hazra, an infectious diseases specialist at the Howard Brown Health clinic in Hyde Park, 1525 E. 55th St., said his network's call center was contacting existing patients who qualified for vaccines under Phase 1B earlier this year, directing patients at the Hyde Park clinic to get their shots on 55th Street.
At first, Howard Brown had a sign-up page for eligible patients on their website, appointment times available for booking, but they were filled "almost immediately," Hazra said. "We realized quickly that that system would not be feasible for our patients. "Contacting patients directly is more work, he said, but it is a better way, both for equity's sake and to prioritize patients who go to the Hyde Park clinic.
"It's difficult to create huge guardrails to prevent North Side folks coming to the South Side for vaccine," he said, noting reports of people at other vaccination sites gaming the system for shots during appointment sign-up.
"We've been very deliberate in how we developed our vaccine appointment schedules, that we really have a schedule blocked, and the only people who we really want scheduled in these daily vaccines in our clinics are our folks who have a Hyde Park or an Englewood provider, or established patients in any of our sites. For folks who are not established but live in the community, that's why we have these community vaccination events, where they can come in and get their vaccines as well, even if they don't get their primary care through Howard Brown."
All in all, the Hyde Park clinic has done about 1,000 vaccines since the beginning of February, just under 10% of all the vaccines Howard Brown has done across 12 different locations.
Hazra said the biggest roadblock is how many vaccine doses the clinic receives from the city. At this point, Howard Brown is focusing on big pop-up events, mostly on the Far South and Southwest sides, to get shots into arms.
"We know for a lot of folks it can be difficult to just randomly come on a Monday through Friday during clinic hours," he said. "We've been leveraging a lot of our community partnerships here on the South Side to develop mass vaccination events where we're vaccinating over 1,000 folks on a Saturday or Sunday with established churches or community centers in the south region."
While New York City has established mass vaccination sites that operate 24/7, Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner public health, has said there are no plans to do that here, suggesting instead last month that at a March 22 press conference that her department has thought about bringing vaccine to people "in strike-team kind of ways at off-hours as necessary," depending on demand and vaccine supply.
Hazra said that Howard Brown's work in HIV prevention — the network chiefly caters to Chicago's LGBTQ population — has informed its COVID-19 vaccination strategy. "We have to meet people where we are. We can't expect them to come into our clinics regularly, and that's why we've been trying to pivot towards these community-level vaccine efforts."
He said that mass vaccination events are running every weekend and that a mobile unit is also up and running at South Side senior centers and nursing homes, in partnership with the University of Chicago. Like Thompson, he also noted that Howard Brown needs to do more hiring, as the network is still running primary care and coronavirus testing.
Howard Brown's vaccination efforts moving forward will depend on how many doses of vaccine they receive; at present, most of the network's vaccines are going to mass vaccination events. But Hazra sees an inflection point coming soon, with "more doses than arms that want doses.
"There's going to have to be ongoing education," he said. "I'm sure the City of Chicago is putting together PSAs, billboards and whatnot about getting your vaccine. They haven't had to advertise it that much, obviously, so far, but I do think going into the late spring and summer months, really trying to get to a high percentage of vaccination, getting those folks who are still hesitant or still undecided is really going to be having to get information to those communities to make sure that they feel comfortable, confident and empowered to get a vaccine."
Hazra, for his part, wants to stop using the word "hesitancy" when it comes to vaccines, and like anti-HIV work, he thinks pro-vaccination campaigns will need to be driven from the bottom up, from contact on an individual level within community social networks.
"I have one-on-one conversations with people every single day about the vaccine, about their concerns and questions, and really people just have questions about the vaccine, and once you are able to answer some of the questions or assuage some of the concerns, they're like, 'Yeah, where do I sign up?'" he said. "I call it more like 'vaccine undecidedness,' but that doesn't have such a nice ring to it."
Speaking as an infectious disease doctor on COVID-19's rise, worldwide spread and ability to kill, all in the span of 14 months, Hazra said, "The speed with which we were able to develop a vaccine, a potential intervention to stem this tide, it is breathtaking. I think there's been a lot of pieces about how the pandemic has shown the worst in humanity and how the pandemic has shown folks who are selfish or don't care and whatnot. And I agree. That's always been there, and maybe the pandemic has brought it to light more.
"But I also think the pandemic has highlighted how folks can get stuff done when working together, how quickly we're able to develop novel therapeutics from start to trial, how we're able to develop vaccine technology. From 60 days from knowing the sequence, we're able to start Phase 1 clinical trials. This is all from the blood, sweat and tears of these amazing scientists, and that's what really takes my breath away."
Local COVID-19 information
In their email, Dean Polonsky and President Jackiewicz at the UCMC wrote that the Hospital Incident Command System for the COVID-19 response had been retired, though they said that the deactivation does not mean the pandemic is over.
“It signals that teams across the health system have created a strong framework to respond to the pandemic and shown UChicago Medicine can effectively maintain hospital operations and care for patients during the continuing crisis," they wrote.
“It is clear that the collaboration that was needed, changes that were made, and the innovations that were fueled by COVID-19 have been incorporated into our daily work — and we have become a stronger organization as a result. We are confident our health system can continue to deliver high-quality care to patients and the community as we navigate the ups and downs of the pandemic."
Meanwhile, Chicago’s disconcerting rise in COVID-19 cases and test positivity continues. As of April, the city's seven-day rolling average of daily cases was 542, indicating high risk according to the CDPH and up 45% from the week before. The citywide test positivity is 4.7%. Hospitalizations are up. On April 1, Commissioner Arwady said there are no signs the surge will slow.
As of March 21-27, however, COVID-19 positivities remain below 5%, the citywide target positivity, in all four mid-South Side lakefront ZIP codes.
- In 60653, covering North Kenwood and Bronzeville, there were 35 confirmed cases of COVID-19, compared to 27 the week before, and one death, up from one the week before. There was a 4.2% positivity rate out of 826 tests performed, up from 2.6% the week before. The number of tests performed dropped 19%.
- In 60615, covering northern Hyde Park, southern Kenwood and northern Washington Park, there were 23 confirmed cases, up from 21 the week before, and no deaths, the same as the week before. There was a 1.1% positivity rate out of 1,809 tests, up from 1% the week before. The number of tests performed dropped 13%.
- In 60637, covering southern Hyde Park, southern Washington Park and Woodlawn, there were 36 confirmed cases, up from 26 the week before, and no deaths, down from one the week before. There was a 1.2% positivity rate out of 2,906 tests, up from 0.7% the week before. The number of tests performed dropped 24%.
- In 60649, South Shore, there were 27 confirmed cases, down from 37 the week before, and no deaths, the same as the week before. There was a 2.4% positivity rate out of 1,114 tests, down from 2.4% the week before. The number of tests performed dropped 20%.
The city’s figures are accurate as of April 2, recorded at chi.gov/coviddash, and change as additional past data comes in.
From March 19-26, the University of Chicago reported 15 positive cases out of 3,649 tests among students and faculty; the week before, the school identified two positive cases. All test results are reported to the city.
Since Sept. 18, there have been 918 total coronavirus cases at the U. of C.
The city's website for vaccine information is www.chicago.gov/covidvax. The city's online platform for vaccine scheduling is zocdoc.com/vaccine, where bookings for seniors to get vaccines at the United Center are available. Seniors can also register over the phone at 312-746-4835.
Patient registration for the COVID-19 vaccine at the UCMC is not available at this time; vaccines are being offered to eligible patients through a lottery, with patients being notified when it is their turn to schedule an appointment.
Howard Brown Health is offering the COVID-19 vaccine to essential frontline workers and those aged 65 and older, with sign-up at 872-269-3600.
The Cook County government is offering sign-up for vaccines at vaccine.cookcountyil.gov.