There’s more than just an hour drive separating the Chicago suburbs of Dixmoor and Northbrook.
The two communities have vastly different COVID-19 vaccination rates. More than 81% of Northbrook residents are fully vaccinated, while barely 13% of Dixmoor residents are.
That stark gap is playing out across Chicagoland. A WBEZ analysis of Cook County vaccination data by municipality found a stark gap between the most vaccinated suburbs and least vaccinated ones. The 10 communities with the highest vaccination rates are all majority white and affluent, while the 10 communities with the lowest vaccination rates are majority Black and low-income.
“I personally didn’t imagine there would be that wide of a gap,” said Dr. Rachel Rubin, co-lead of the Cook County Department of Public Health.
Many of the least vaccinated communities in the south suburbs were hit hard by the pandemic early on and are still the most at-risk. According to Cook County Medical Examiner records, Harvey, Orland Park, Alsip and Dolton have had a combined 25 coronavirus-related deaths since May 1, around the time vaccines became widely available.
“They’re going to get hit very hard if we have another surge,” Rubin said. “But we can’t give up. I think we really need to work really hard this summer.”
The current COVID-19 vaccines provide protection from all the known variants of concern, including the more contagious delta variant. But scientists and public health experts note that ongoing circulation of the virus in areas with low vaccination rates could lead to new variants spreading.
“It can’t be 80% in most of the communities; it has to be 80% in all communities,” Rubin said.
For 17-year-old Catherine Bides, getting vaccinated had been on her to-do list for a while.
She finally got her first dose on a hot Saturday afternoon in June inside the gymnasium of Thornton Township High School. Bides was one of just 70 people who came through the pop-up vaccination site that day.
“It was just that I didn’t find the right time,” Bides said. The Harvey resident said she also had trouble early on finding an appointment, because many places were not giving shots to anyone under 18.
The Cook County Department of Public Health opened the Harvey site in late May with hopes it would boost lagging vaccination rates across the south suburbs. But fewer than 500 people ultimately got vaccinated there before the site closed at the end of June, according to a department spokesperson.
“We haven’t gotten the business that we’ve wanted to get,” Rubin said.
Highest and lowest vaccination rates in suburban Cook County
Rubin said now the county plans to shift resources toward more community-focused, on-the-ground efforts.
“We really need to be going door to door with outreach,” Rubin said. “To say, ‘We have a van that’s doing vaccinations that’s in the elementary school yard,’ and draw a circle and knock on all the doors and say, ‘We’re going to be here all weekend.’ ”
Dr. Lisa Green is the CEO of Family Christian Health Center, which operates multiple federally-qualified health centers in the south suburbs. She said the stark differences in vaccination rates between Cook County suburbs can be attributed to several factors: a lack of transportation, fewer hospitals and clinics in the south suburbs, and distrust of the health care system among the Black community.
Green said she believes the urgency of needing to get a vaccine diminished for some people when the state fully reopened and loosened all pandemic restrictions.
“For the people who were on the fence, reopening gave a lot of people the ability to say, ‘I’m good,’ ” Green said. Still, she cautioned that those same people’s health risks for a serious COVID-19 case have not changed. “Your diabetes didn’t leave yesterday just because the city opened back up.”
Family Christian Health Center is also taking a more door-to-door approach now, Green said. Workers talk to community members more specifically about how COVID-19 is spreading right in their neighborhood, which she believes is more successful in convincing people to get the vaccine.
“When we break it down to your city, your block, your neighborhood — this is where you live, this is what’s happening here, these are the number of people who got infected, this is the number of your neighbors that died — as we break it down like that, it’s beginning to move things,” Green said.
The numbers do show progress. At the end of May, just 15% of Harvey residents were fully vaccinated. As of the end of June, 23% were. That’s a decent increase in a short period of time, even if it’s still nowhere close to the high vaccination rates in Cook County’s other suburbs.
Green said those highly vaccinated suburbs are proof that the vaccines are safe.
“They didn’t die, they’re not glowing, and they don’t have 10 arms,” she said.
But her bigger concern is what could happen across the region if vaccination rates in the south suburbs don’t catch up.
“If you leave these communities unvaccinated then you risk that variant getting stronger,” Green said. “If this [virus] changes to something else, then the rest of us that are back, you know, eating out at our cafes and back in the office and thinking that we’re good because we’re vaccinated. That risk factor changes.”
Cheryl Jones, outreach coordinator with the Harvey Area Chamber of Commerce, said her message to her neighbors who are still unvaccinated is simple.
“People are still getting sick. People are still going to the hospital. And people are dying,” Jones said. “We can’t let our guard down.”