On a steamy spring morning, Dave Jordan sat in the un-air-conditioned gym at Harlan Community Academy and pulled up his left shirt sleeve to receive his second COVID-19 booster. As he headed back to work security at the Roseland high school, he vowed to talk with his family again about getting their shots.
Jordan said his 16-year-old daughter received only one dose, in October, shortly after his 11-year-old daughter contracted the coronavirus. The younger girl has not been vaccinated, Jordan said. He has had “frustrating” family discussions but can’t seem to overcome concerns about long-term effects of the vaccine.
“We do see the (case) numbers boosting up, and so I think I’m going to be encouraging them today to go ahead and get their shots,” said Jordan, who is also pastor of 1st Holy Zion M.B. Church in Fuller Park.
Jordan’s younger daughter is among the roughly 60% of kids ages 5 to 11 in Illinois who are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine but haven’t been given a dose.
In October, the Food and Drug Administration gave emergency authorization for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for use in children 5 to 11, but vaccine rates for the youngest eligible age group are lagging, raising concern among pediatricians and infectious disease experts.
About 40% of eligible children in Illinois have gotten at least one shot of the vaccine, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. In the city, about 54% of children have received a dose of the vaccine, though wide disparities exist in where children are fully inoculated against the virus, with children in wealthier, whiter communities receiving the vaccine at higher rates, according to a Tribune analysis of city data.
Even as most Illinois children have not yet received one shot, the FDA on Tuesday authorized a booster for children 5 to 11, clearing the way for kids who are fully vaccinated to receive a third dose to secure the best protection against new variants.
Disparities also exist statewide, with downstate counties mostly lagging behind those in the Chicago area, and in Chicago Public Schools, where the school-by-school vaccination rates largely mirror the imbalance among city ZIP codes.
Doctors, public health experts and community members who work on vaccine outreach say they hear a range of concerns from parents, some rooted in misinformation, others in systemic racism from the medical community that has resulted in distrust. Some parents told the Tribune they didn’t vaccinate their children, even though they themselves are vaccinated, expressing a range of fears.
But doctors overwhelmingly urge parents to vaccinate their children. They cite cases of serious illness — even though the risk of serious outcomes from the virus is lower in children — as well as the potential for children to spread the virus to other vulnerable people as new cases of COVID-19 again are rising in Chicago and across the country.
“I’m not particularly surprised, but it is concerning that we’ve not been able to move the needle on this,” said Dr. Larry Kociolek, infectious diseases physician and medical director of infection, prevention and control at Lurie Children’s Hospital.
In Chicago, the ZIP codes with the highest rates of fully vaccinated children center around the Loop and Near North Side, with the 60642 ZIP code, spanning parts of the West Town and River North neighborhoods, reaching the city’s highest rate of 86%, according to the Tribune data analysis from city vaccination data.
The analysis is based on population estimates, and does not include ZIP codes predominantly in the suburbs.
Other areas posting rates above 80% include ZIP codes that encompass parts of the West Loop, Fulton Market, River West and the South Loop.
The city’s lowest rate of vaccination for children falls in a ZIP code that covers much of the Gresham neighborhood on the South Side, with 23% of eligible children recorded as fully vaccinated, according to the data. Other communities falling in ZIP codes with vaccination rates at or under 25% include South Austin, Englewood and South Shore.
“I’m sure you’ve either read or heard or spoken to someone who is an African American or Latinx person that has had issues with trusting hospitals for various historical reasons,” said LaDarius Curtis, who works on vaccine outreach on the city’s West Side.
Chicago Public Schools data, supplied by the Chicago Teachers Union, follows a similar pattern. The five elementary schools with the highest student vaccination rates, all above 90% for students who have received at least one shot, are all located on the North Side. The five schools with the lowest rates, of below 15%, are on the South or West sides of the city in majority-Black neighborhoods.
A CPS spokesperson in a statement said the district is “working with our schools with low student vaccination rates in order to facilitate outreach calls to our families and coordinate events with our community partners.”
Statewide, Chicago as a whole outperforms Cook County and the rest of Illinois, with 54% of children with at least one dose. Cook County (combining city and suburban figures) lags behind DuPage and Lake, with nearly 47% of children with at least one dose, compared to DuPage’s 54% and Lake’s 53%.
In Illinois, 29 counties report vaccination rates of less than 10%.
IDPH said in a statement that it is “closely tracking” vaccinations for all age groups.
“We have performed extensive outreach with pediatricians to recruit them as vaccine providers and encouraged the profession as a whole to stress the effectiveness of the vaccines in preventing severe illness and also limiting transmission,” the statement read.
Dr. Rachel Caskey, a pediatrician and associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at University of Illinois Chicago, universally recommends the vaccine to parents of eligible children, but tailors her response to those who are hesitant, based on their specific concerns.
Some of the biggest fears voiced by parents, even those who have taken the vaccine themselves, have to do with side effects and the newness of it, she said. Other parents say they believe the risk of an adverse case of COVID-19 is low for children. Some parrot misinformation that has circulated.
“You can’t dismiss the fact that there are a number of children who have gotten severely ill (from COVID-19),” Caskey said.
She also noted children can spread the disease to more vulnerable adults even if they don’t contract a serious case themselves. Also, she said, even mild cases of COVID-19 in adults and children can be extremely disruptive, causing parents to miss work and children to miss school.
To parents who are concerned about the newness of the vaccine, Caskey points out the overall RNA vaccine technology has been around for a long time.
“It’s just important to keep the message strong that this is really a safe vaccine for children,” she said.
Kociolek said some parents have been fed misleading or false information about the vaccine, making it difficult to break through with fact-based messaging and increase uptake.
And because of the public health urgency of the vaccine, it is distributed in a way that differs from most other childhood vaccines, which are given at the pediatrician’s office.
“Commercial pharmacies, for example, are not typically responsible for administering vaccines for children and so they can feel different to parents who are bringing their child in,” he said.
He said manufacturers could make it easier for pediatricians to administer the vaccine in their offices, a setting that engenders greater trust and comfort for many parents. The storage requirements make it difficult for some pediatrician offices to have vaccines ready for patients, as they don’t always have the cold storage capacity, or enough patients to make preparing multidose vials worthwhile if all won’t be used in a given day.
“Taking a deep dive into the barriers and taking action to minimize those barriers would benefit primary care providers significantly and allow them to champion this,” he said.
The Tribune spoke to a number of parents who chose not to vaccinate their children. Some were vaccinated themselves but felt too wary of the vaccine to inoculate their young children. Some felt children were not at high risk of a serious case of the virus.
“It’s hard to make a decision right now so early on,” said Claudia Dabrowski, who has not vaccinated her children.
Other parents have told the Tribune of their eagerness to vaccinate their children and are awaiting authorization for the youngest in the families, pointing to children with health problems at risk from people who are not vaccinated.
Michelle Funk, medical director for youth settings at the Chicago Department of Public Health, said a survey conducted in October indicated 60% of respondents would vaccinate their children, but the figures have fallen short of that, though she noted rates for teenagers are strong.
“This is certainly a significant disparity in vaccination and it is something of concern at CDPH,” Funk said.
Funk said outreach efforts are underway, with marketing campaigns particularly targeting areas in the city that are seeing lower vaccination rates. The city has taken out ads on billboards, as well as digital ads in social media platforms like Instagram. It also uses Chicago Public Schools and partners with community groups in its equity zones for further outreach into the community, she said.
CPS holds regular clinics for vaccination, which have served more than 22,500 patients, though not all were children, the district said in a statement.
It also has held webinars, trainings and town hall forums. In one case, Dunne STEM Academy on the Far South Side used TikTok to send public service announcements. The school’s vaccination rate rose from 5% to 42%, according to CPS.
Curtis, senior director of community engagement and health for West Side United, said hospitals and health centers, like Erie Family Health and Esperanza Health Centers, play a role in helping to increase trust in the vaccine in communities with lower uptake, though they need to combat decades of racist mistreatment from the medical community. Curtis also works with the city as part of its equity zone initiative, which designates areas that need specialized vaccine outreach.
“COVID-19 has only added a real spotlight to the various social determinants already going on in Black and brown communities,” he said.
He also noted many opportunities for education and vaccination happen during the day, or in time windows that aren’t flexible, which can be difficult for working parents.
“The biggest struggle we have is not meeting parents where they are,” he said.