Esperanza Health Centers Lead Chicago On COVID Vaccines For Children

Medical assistant Rachel Blancas pushed Victoria’s left arm for about a second. Victoria opened her eyes. And with that, the Macias sisters were among the first children aged 5 to 11 to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in the largest city in the Midwest.

Their mother, Maria Lopez, took them out of school early last Thursday to stop at the mass vaccination site on the southwest side of Chicago. “They got every other vaccine available, so why not this one?” Said Lopez, 43, a real estate broker.

Esperanza Health Centers, a nonprofit health care provider that operates the site, has been the primary provider of pediatric COVID vaccines in Chicago, according to the city’s public health department, administering about 10,000 vaccines to the 12 to 17 years. Now that the Food and Drug Administration has cleared the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, the organization’s efforts may provide lessons to other places in the United States that have struggled to vaccinate. children.

“People in the community trust us,” said Veronica Flores, COVID response manager for Esperanza, which has five medical clinics that see patients regardless of their insurance or immigration status. “When the pandemic started, we were one of the first to do tests. “

At one point, she noted, Esperanza was responsible for more than half of all COVID tests performed in the city. The federally qualified health center patient population, which is approximately 90% Hispanic, has doubled as a result of COVID.

Everyone who works with patients at Esperanza is bilingual. The vaccination site has extended hours and is open five days a week, including walk-in people. The clinic will even pay for patients’ Uber trips to be vaccinated.

If parents or guardians have any questions or concerns about the pediatric vaccine, Esperanza puts them in touch with one of her doctors.

Pediatric Medical Director Dr Mark Minier seeks to reassure patients that the vaccine, given at a lower dose than for adolescents and adults, has been shown to be both safe and effective for 5-11 year. . Relatively mild side effects can include pain at the injection site, headache, and fatigue that can last for a day or two. In addition, he reminds them that children are at risk from the virus.

“About 2 million children aged 5 to 11 have been diagnosed with COVID, and there have been around 170 deaths,” Minier said. “It’s still too much. If we have anything that can help prevent death or any sort of morbidity in children from COVID, then we should do it. “

Cynthia Galvan, a medical assistant in Esperanza who lives nearby, brought her 10-year-old son, Andres, to get vaccinated on Thursday. She hopes this will guarantee her family a better Thanksgiving than last year, when several of her relatives were sick with COVID-19.

“Everyone at home was already vaccinated except him,” said Cynthia, 34. “We are 10.”

Chicago’s immunization rate of 58.2% for 12 to 17 year olds is higher than the national average by about 50%, in large part because of the work of community health centers like Esperanza, the commissioner said. City Health, Dr Allison Arwady. Not only are they familiar with local languages ​​and cultures, but this is also the type of place where the whole family is likely to get the vaccine, starting with grandparents last winter.

“We know that the greatest predictor of a child’s immunization is whether the parent or guardian is immunized,” Arwady said.

She is still worried about the city’s estimated 750,000 residents without COVID immunity. Young Black Chicagoans have fallen behind other groups in getting vaccinated, and she fears epidemics could occur this winter among those unvaccinated networks.

“Either way, your immune system is likely to learn its COVID lesson and possibly over the next several months,” Arwady said. “So it’s either the safest way to get the vaccine or the risk of getting infected. “

The city is working to increase immunization by offering $ 100 gift cards, giving free in-home vaccines to anyone who wants it, and giving all public school children a day off this Friday to to get vaccinated.

Last week, Esperanza Health Centers texted the families of each of its approximately 8,000 patients aged 5 to 11 to let their parents know the vaccine was available. The organization began distributing the injections to young children on Wednesday morning, just hours after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave the final green light. They will start giving out second doses in three weeks.

“I hate beating,” Benicio Decker, 7, said as he played a game on an iPad in the clinic’s waiting room on Thursday. “The only time I like shots is when we have an ice cream afterwards. “

But the Chicago sophomore said he was willing to put up with a little discomfort “because I want to protect my family, me, my friends, my teacher.”

During the crisp fall afternoon, families with young children flocked in and out of the site, a 23,000-square-foot former gym with exposed ventilation, overhead fluorescent lights and marble flooring. rubber speckled with blue. As Disney songs played through the speakers, the children stopped to take photos in front of photographic backdrops covered with astronaut-themed balloons that the health center had installed.

“They do a great job of making information available where people are,” said Benicio’s mother, Esmie De Maria, 39. “They have flyers in restaurants, laundromats, the grocery store. They don’t expect people to come to them.

Esperanza has also organized pop-up vaccination clinics in local schools and parks.

De Maria said she had not encountered waiting lists like she had in other places in town. She even asked the health center to teach vaccine workshops to her colleagues at a local neighborhood organization.

Esperanza is a trusted institution in a largely Hispanic part of town, De Maria said – the health center’s name means “hope” in Spanish. In Chicago and across the country, Latinos have been less likely than whites and Asians to be immune to the coronavirus, although that gap has narrowed.

“People of color have every right, historically, to be wary of vaccinations,” said De Maria, noting that many women in his ancestral home in Puerto Rico were forced to be sterilized during the 20th century. “It’s ingrained in our DNA to be skeptical.”

But she said she hopes everyone will consider getting vaccinated, for the sake of the community. “It’s not just for him,” she said, pointing to Benicio.

At the vaccination station, Blancas, the medical assistant, told Benicio the shot would look like a mosquito bite. “You are really brave. You win this ice cream, ”her mother said.

When Blancas stuck Benicio’s arm with the needle, the boy, holding on tight to his Batman teddy bear, let out a silent “Ouch”. Afterward, he said he just felt a little pinch.

“You’re officially vaccinated,” his mother told him, as he sat down to play with her phone in the observation area for 15 minutes to make sure he didn’t have any dangerous allergic reactions. “He will be one of the first children in his school to be vaccinated. He’s a little superhero.

This story first appeared in Kaiser Health News. Kaiser Health News is a national health policy information service. This is an independent editorial program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Maria J. Book