Chicagoland Vaccine Partnership Brings Vital Health Services, and Trust, to Neighborhoods

New coalition relies on community organizations, personal outreach to close equity gaps

Posted on Aug 25, 2021

The Chicago-based Antioch Community Social Service Agency youth outreach team going door-to-door in the Englewood neighborhood with COVID-19 vaccine information.
The Chicago-based Antioch Community Social Service Agency youth outreach team goes door-to-door in the Englewood neighborhood with COVID-19 vaccine information. Photo courtesy of Eddie Johnson III

The nation may be struggling with yet another COVID-19 surge, but the outreach workers of the Antioch Community Social Service Agency in Chicago are racking up successes.

Ten newly hired Youth Community Outreach workers -- all young adults – are going door-to-door in neighborhoods around the city to share information about COVID-19 vaccinations with other youths and help them sign up for appointments. At the same time, the agency, which provides social services to residents of low-income housing, is using its long-established network of trusted workers to secure transportation, food support, and co-pay assistance for seniors at vaccination events. The organization’s first six weeks of outreach led to over 350 vaccinations.

"People in Englewood trust us because they know us. I live in the community, went to high school here, and people know me from the food drives and back to school events we've done for years. That trust is important," said Eddie Johnson III, executive director of Antioch Community Social Service Agency.

This is just one of the local community groups that has received support from the  Chicagoland Vaccine Partnership (CVP), a coalition created in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Partners In Health’s U.S. Public Health Accompaniment Unit expanded the CVP, which it now staffs and manages, bringing together community-based organizations, public health experts, government officials, and philanthropists to focus on closing stark health equity gaps that have become more apparent during the pandemic. 

“Our role is to facilitate critical connections and collaborations,” said Max Clermont, USPHAU’s senior project lead in Chicago.

“Equity is not a one-off thing or a box to check. This is about listening to what people in the community, doing the work, need. It’s about building trust at all steps.”

Clermont, a former community organizer, worked behind the scenes to help establish the first “rapid response grants” given to several local community-based organizations, like the Antioch group, to support vaccine outreach to individuals and families who remain unvaccinated and vulnerable to the virus. The grants were awarded by the Health First Collaborative (HFC), an incubation effort of Michael Reese Health Trust, which initially launched the CVP. Some of the organizations receiving grants had not been working in the traditional public health sphere, but when the pandemic hit, they pivoted: food pantries and youth boxing groups and violence prevention organizations, for instance, shifted to vaccine outreach in the neighborhoods they already served.

Clermont said this flexibility has been critical. 

“The groups basically said, ‘We're not a health-oriented organization, but this is a health crisis affecting our communities and there's a role for me to play,’” Clermont added.

A Shift in Vaccine Strategy

In August, a new round of rapid-response grants will be awarded. For the philanthropies driving this effort, the strategy of funding small, under-the-radar community groups marked a shift in approach.

“The Chicagoland Vaccine Partnership and Health First Collaborative have been working to change the way local philanthropies fund public health outreach,” said Rachel Reichlin, RN, senior program officer at Michael Reese Health Trust. “Our vaccine community mobilization grants are flexible, so if a group says, ‘We want to hire an outreach worker to go to BBQs,’ or ‘We need funds to fix our outreach van,’ they can get the support to meet their community where they are -- where they live, work, learn, play and pray.”

The CVP’s journey has been swift. It began as an inclusive, open-invitation Zoom call among the region’s stakeholders to problem-solve in real time. This was at the height of the pandemic, when it became clear that the disproportionate burden of illness and death was falling on neighborhoods and residents already suffering the impact of long-standing segregation, and historic racial and economic injustice. Before the pandemic, there was a life expectancy gap of 16 years between the city’s wealthiest and poorest neighborhoods; in the first months of the pandemic, 70% of COVID-19 deaths were among Black people.

At that time, Clermont said, the city, county and state public health departments needed support to align on the most effective COVID-19 response strategies. The CVP meetings, held every Tuesday, serve as a safe space for community leaders to connect with health officials, and allow people from all sectors to discuss barriers to vaccination they are seeing in their neighborhoods and brainstorm potential solutions.

The CVP now includes about 135 participating organizations. While its reach has broadened, its mission has come into clearer focus: to mobilize trusted community leaders to share accessible information about vaccines; educate community members about the latest COVID-19 science and offer public health skill-building; and elevate coordination among community-based organizations, government, health care, and philanthropy to boost vaccination efforts and support a public health workforce.  All of this, Clermont adds, should be built on a foundation of equity.

“Any serious efforts to improve health outcomes must confront racism and understand how our history shaped the problems we are working to address,” Clermont said.

Town Halls and Cupcakes to Stop COVID-19

To leverage deep knowledge among local health professionals, the CVP created a Speakers Bureau that connects area doctors, nurses, and other providers with interested community groups to share accurate, accessible, up-to-date information about COVID-19 and vaccines. All of the speakers are experts in their field and able to clearly and compassionately address community concerns while engaging in non-judgmental conversations with a variety of audiences. 

The CVP so far has facilitated more than 37 events, where more than 700 people have learned about COVID-19 vaccines, with information in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Urdu. Events have included online town halls, staff trainings, and even a Zoom cupcake-baking class.

Additionally, the CVP has partnered with Malcom X City College and the Chicago Department of Public Health to offer a free online training that helps community members speak to their neighbors about vaccination. After taking the course, vaccine ambassadors can continue to get support and grow their public health skills through an online learning community managed by PIH’s U.S. Public Health Accompaniment Unit. To date, 3,000 people have signed up to become Vaccine Ambassadors and over 350 have joined the learning community. The CVP is now hiring six to eight fellows who have interest in public health careers. The learning community fellows will co-design community learning opportunities, help create an extended public health workforce and advocacy curriculum, and support engagement and growth of the learning community.  

A More Just Future, A More Robust Public Health Workforce

The pandemic has exposed many glaring inequities in Chicagoland’s public health infrastructure, Clermont said, and so the CVP is building a Health Justice School to help community members grow their public health knowledge and opportunities. The school will be based in community knowledge and what has been learned through community-driven health responses during the pandemic, in order to expand health equity beyond COVID-19.

The CVP will no doubt persist even after the pandemic has faded, continuing to support community-based organizations and the city with ongoing health efforts, informed by local leaders, to make the region a more equitable place for all residents, no matter which neighborhood they may live in.

“While our work is focused on equitable vaccine access now, we hope that our approach can continue to expand access to health care beyond the pandemic,” Clermont said. “Ultimately, investing in community-led health outreach can transform how our public health systems connect with people in Chicagoland.”

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