Austin residents have been eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine for a few weeks at neighborhood sites including Catalyst Circle Rock Charter school and the larger United Center mass vaccination site. 

However, to Austin residents, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other city officials need to do much more to make sure people understand when they’re eligible to get the vaccine and how to get an appointment.

“They need to be at the school handing out flyers,” said Marilyn Ray, an entrepreneur who works at a nearby school — she didn’t feel comfortable disclosing which school. She was able to get the vaccine through Chicago Public Schools (CPS), but she said she hasn’t seen many advertisements or signs in the neighborhood telling Austin residents they can get vaccinated and where.

“Back when they were doing [COVID-19] testing, you saw ads for that everywhere,” Ray said. “We haven’t had any flyers about vaccinations for students to take home or anything yet.”

On March 22, The TRiiBE visited Amundsen Park to find out how Austin residents feel about the vaccine rollout in their neighborhood so far and how officials can do more to educate people on vaccine availability.

Back in February, Mayor Lightfoot launched the Project Chicago Plus initiative, the city’s way of ensuring that all efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic prioritized communities hardest hit by the virus. 

Part of that initiative meant partnering with local community organizations, local hospitals and other neighborhood institutions that are prepared to set up vaccination sites and administer shots to residents. 

Austin was one of those prioritized neighborhoods. During the height of the pandemic in spring 2020, Austin recorded a COVID-19 case rate of about 431 people per 100,000 compared to just over 200 per 100,000 for the entire city, according to info from the city’s online database.

In Austin, the city set up neighborhood vaccination sites at Circle Rock Catalyst Charter School and Amundsen Park, run by Rush University Hospital and Loretto Hospital, respectively. Both sites were intended to service only Austin residents until the weekend of April 17, just over a month from their March 12 opening date.

However, in recent weeks, Loretto Hospital has come under investigation because of a vaccination scandal, first reported by Block Club Chicago, where the hospital’s CEO and COO had been administering vaccines meant for high-risk people in severely affected communities to ineligible people from Trump Tower, a Gold Coast jewelry store, a south suburban church and a Gold Coast steakhouse

Because of this, Mayor Lightfoot and the head of the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH), Dr. Allison Arwady, announced on March 18 that they were shutting down the city’s vaccination program with Loretto Hospital; this meant it won’t receive any new first doses of the vaccine. Additionally, because Loretto Hospital ran the neighborhood initiative at Amundsen Park, that neighborhood site is also closed to first doses.

Officials have said residents will still be able to receive their second dose of the vaccine at both sites. However, one TRiiBE reader —who reached out to us on Twitter — said she’s been having trouble securing her second dose at Amundsen Park.   

“Patients who received their first dose at Amundsen Park will receive their second dose at Amundsen Park and they will be contacted directly,” said Erica Duncan, a representative from CDPH.

Through email, we also asked officials if there are plans to reopen first doses at Loretto Hospital and Amundsen since one of the hospital’s chief operating officer recently resigned amid the vaccination scandal.

“The City is still continuing all Protect Chicago Plus efforts in the Austin community—the vaccinations have not stopped,” Duncan wrote via email.

According to Rush Hospital’s website, some people who originally scheduled their first dose at Loretto Hospital and Amundsen Park are now receiving their vaccination at Catalyst Rock Charter School in Austin. 

“I get why it was wrong, but cutting off the vaccine supply is only hurting the people who relied on them to get it,” Weeks said. “Now people over here just have one less way to get vaccinated.”

Sandra Weeks is a registered nurse at Loretto Hospital and a resident of the Austin area. On top of working on the frontlines in Loretto’s emergency room throughout the pandemic, she spends much of her free time educating her community about the vaccine. 

“There’s so much false information about the vaccine out there in the media and social media,” Weeks said, referencing social media conspiracy theories about how the vaccine could be dangerous to people with pre-existing conditions. “Those [people with pre-existing conditions] are the ones who need it the most. People with heart problems, lung problems like COPD [and] asthma. They have the most at stake.”

Weeks and her husband, Phil, feel it is their duty to do what they can to ensure that the people they’re around understand what is and isn’t accurate about the vaccine. Then, at least, people can make an educated decision about whether they are going to get it.

“I got [the vaccine] because where I’m at in my life, I ain’t trying to die,” Phil Weeks said. “It’s your body. Do what you feel is best for you. But at least make an informed decision.”

The Weeks said they’ve had to hold people’s hands throughout the vaccination registration process due to the lack of clarity on who’s eligible and a constantly evolving landscape of vaccination locations. 

Aside from Loretto suddenly going from one of the city’s most prominent vaccination distribution partners to being cut-off from new doses, another example of how quickly vaccination resources can switch up is how within a day of the city announcing a list of new targeted zip codes eligible to be vaccinated at the United Center, the voucher code to register online via the city’s vaccine website suddenly went inactive. In those instances, residents who tried to sign up with the voucher code received the following message: “Voucher code has already been used the maximum number of times allowed.”

Screenshots of TRiiBE readers sharing their experiences with online registration at United Center.

Chicago has a population of 2.7 million and limited vaccine supply, so limits are expected. But cutting off vaccine supply to one of the West Side’s most recognizable medical resources at Loretto Hospital doesn’t seem to serve the ultimate goal of vaccinating as many people in the hard-hit community as possible. 

These inconveniences seem minor on the surface, but with no in-person assistance besides immediate family or care workers, a minor inconvenience is all it takes to discourage a person with little-to-no familiarity with online forms such as Zocdoc from registering for the vaccine. Weeks is clear on what needs to be changed.

“Actually handing things out on paper instead of just on [digital] devices is necessary,” she said. “We have people calling the ER phone [at Loretto Hospital] all the time, and we have to refer them back to that website.”

The lack of physical notifications is the most common complaint amongst the folks in Amundsen Park that we spoke to. 

On Monday, The TRiiBE emailed a question to city officials about how the March 22 expansion of eligibility in Illinois might affect Chicagoans— considering that the state, county, and city have each been on different timelines from each other. We have yet to receive a response. At the time, it was unclear whether additional Chicago residents will be eligible under the state’s new expansion.

According to a March 12 report from ABC 7, Chicago is operating on a separate schedule than the rest of the state because the city received their vaccine supply from the federal government that’s allocated separately from the state’s supply.

Because the state, county and city have been moving on different eligibility timelines, it has been difficult to keep up with who exactly is eligible, and when. The city of Chicago is still under Phase 1B+ until March 29, when it moves into Phase 1C. Those included in Phase 1C are all essential workers and all residents ages 16 through 64 with underlying conditions.


However, on March 22, Gov. J.B. Pritzker expanded the state’s 1B+ eligibility to include higher education staff, government workers and media. On March 29, the state’s Phase 1B+ will further expand to include construction workers, restaurant staff and religious leaders. Pritzker recently announced that the state will move to Phase 1C on April 12, which will finally make everyone ages 16 and up eligible for the vaccine.

Despite initially being on a slower timeline, Cook County is now on the same timeline as the state. Thomas McFeeley, communications manager for the Cook County Department of Public Health, is the only local government official who responded to our email inquiry. And he was able to clarify why each government entity is moving at different paces.

“The main reason why there has been this disconnect between the county, state, and city is because of vaccine supply,” said McFeeley. “In Cook County and Chicago, there are larger populations of each of the demographics who’ve already been eligible relative to the supply we’ve gotten. So the state is able to cover more people in a shorter amount of time.”

Diane, Joyce and Ms. Harper, have all been vaccinated. Although they didn’t feel comfortable giving us their full names, they agreed to be interviewed for the story.

In Amundsen Park, there were three women — each of whom appeared to be more than 60 years old — sitting together. We stopped to ask them if they knew the park was running a vaccination site. Although they didn’t feel comfortable giving us their full names, they agreed to be interviewed for the story. Only one of them, Diane, said she had seen a sign for the vaccination event at Amundsen Park. The sign she saw was posted at Amundsen Park’s Fieldhouse.

Diane and the other two women, Joyce and Ms. Harper, have all been vaccinated, they said. Joyce received the vaccine through a site in her apartment building, which was administered by Oak Street Clinic. Harper got her vaccine through her certified nursing assistant job. And Diane was able to grab an appointment at the United Center mass vaccination site with help from her sister.

None of them used the city’s Zocdoc website to schedule an appointment, instead relying on in-person communication to get vaccinated.

McFeeley said news media, social media and websites such as the Cook County vaccination website are the main ways local officials are trying to reach people. Because it’s where they expect to see the largest response and overall impact on vaccination numbers. But what about those who fall between the cracks of those mediums: those who aren’t tech savvy or don’t have the access to transportation to make it to one of the vaccination sites. The city of Chicago is offering a service for homebound individuals ages 65 and up to be vaccinated at home, but is that information reaching them?

Personally, I’ve struggled with registering my 64-year-old stepfather — who takes about 14 pills a day for his heart condition— to be vaccinated at the United Center. He lives in South Shore, one of the other communities, similar to Austin, that is being prioritized by the Protect Chicago Plus initiative. His zip code, 60649, was one of the first to be eligible for vaccination at the United Center. Yet, he had no idea until I shared the news with him and offered to help. 

After going through all the questions and prompts on Zocdoc to get him registered, we reached a dead-end: the voucher code had reached its maximum number of usage, the very same day that the voucher code was announced for his zip code. 

If the city wants to ensure that the vaccine gets into the arms of every high-risk person in Chicago, it might go a long way to meet those residents where they are: offline.

is a staff writer with The TRiiBE. Email him with news tips.