DuPage County struggles to get people of color vaccinated against COVID-19

The DuPage County Health Department has made significant progress vaccinating people against COVID-19. DuPage County on June 6 became the first county in the state to reach 50% fully vaccinated. But the numbers tell a different story when it comes to people of color.

Only 2.4% of Black people who live and/or work in DuPage County were fully vaccinated as of May 3 while 66.2% of white people have been fully inoculated, according to statistics from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Additionally, Black people are not as likely to have been vaccinated as other communities of color. Nearly 6% of Hispanics and 11.4% of Asians who live and/or work in DuPage County are fully vaccinated, according to the IDPH.

“We’re trying to vaccinate everybody in DuPage County that wants to be vaccinated,” said Christopher Hoff, the DuPage County Health Department’s director of community health resources. “We’re making progress there. We’re focused on making sure people of color – Hispanic, Black and Asian residents of DuPage – have those same opportunities to get into clinics, and that we’re working on messaging to help people be confident in getting the vaccine knowing why it’s important making that decision to get vaccinated.”

The DuPage County Health Department has been vaccinating people against COVID-19 since December 2020. Health authorities acknowledge it’s been a challenge to reach communities of color.

Rashmi Chugh, the county health department’s medical officer, said the department has leveraged current partnerships to foster new relationships with a diverse and dynamic group of community leaders and representatives.

“Prior to the pandemic, there have been ongoing efforts to increase education and awareness for clinicians and health professionals [of] all specialties to help address implicit bias and to improve cultural competency at the individual provider level and within health systems to improve health care access and delivery, as well as health care experience and health outcomes,” Chugh said. “The pandemic has further revealed in many ways [the] exacerbated health inequities experienced by historically underserved populations.”

The county is working with various groups to provide information, schedule vaccination appointments and conduct surveys of unvaccinated individuals. Among the groups leading the charge are churches.

The Rev. Kevin Williams, senior pastor at Second Baptist Church in Wheaton, said he is satisfied with the community’s efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

“People do want to get to a place where they can come and go without risk to their life or their health,” Williams said. “They’re willing to do what it takes. In this case, the vaccine has presented the best available choice to do that.”

Currently, there are three vaccines for COVID-19. Pfizer and Moderna require two shots while Johnson and Johnson requires just one shot. An individual is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the final dose of the vaccine.

Theresa Robinson, a professor at Elmhurst University, said the outreach that’s been done to change the narrative about the vaccine is starting to work under the new federal administration.

Robinson believes more and more people of color are getting vaccinated, but there’s others who remain hesitant – at least for now. She added she doesn’t believe health authorities have done what’s necessary to gain everyone’s trust.

At the same time, Williams doesn’t want to point the finger of blame over the extent to which people are taking the virus seriously. He said the issue comes down to people taking personal responsibility.

“We’re stepping up to the plate, if you will, to make sure that we’re not the cause of the spread,” Williams said. “We also want to be protected when we’re exposed to somebody who was not vaccinated.”

Robinson said the divisive political discourse the virus has generated is puzzling.

“The lack of a process that’s clear shows that we, as a nation, are not ready for this level of public health,” she said. “It’s shown a light on the fact that we don’t have a national response to public health issues. I don’t know that there’s a blame, per se, as much as it highlighted we don’t have a national response. We did not have things in place to handle this level of an outbreak.”

Theon Hill, a professor at Wheaton College, said it’s important that messaging about the pandemic and the vaccine doesn’t get lost in translation.

“We need voices who those individuals trust to communicate with them,” Hill said. “One of the things, as a rhetorical scholar, I always argue is that you have to be able to identify with someone before you can persuade them. That’s a theoretical premise of so much of my work.

“When it comes to the vaccine, who do members of the Black community identify with? This is why you’ve seen so many celebrities, why you’ve seen so many Black politicians, trusted community leaders, activists.”

Hill said the media has failed to properly tell the story about Black vaccine hesitancy in some instances.

“The extent to which media coverage fails to acknowledge the reasons why Black community members may doubt the efficacy of the virus or have suspicions around it, you’re going to be unable to reach them,” Hill said. “Because what you’re going to end up doing is you’re going to try to persuade, but you’re not going to be addressing the reasons why they have doubts. If you’re not talking about the abuse, mistreatment and racist conduct of medical professionals toward Black citizens, you’re going to have a hard time understanding why they might hesitate to get a vaccine.”

Hill is referring to, among other things, the Tuskegee Study during which Black men who did not give consent were left untreated for syphilis, allowing researchers to observe the disease’s natural progression.

“I think it’s important to have a historical perspective when you’re trying to make an intervention that changes someone’s behavior response to the COVID-19 vaccine,” Hill said.

The pandemic has become a bit of a political topic in some social circles over the past year. Not everyone believes the church should get involved in politics.

Hill acknowledged this position will vary from one church to another, but said the idea that the “church plays a role in raising awareness of health disparities is a concept that is alive and well in many Black churches.”

“In this moment, many have felt the call to host informational meetings to try to communicate with people about both the pandemic and the forthcoming vaccine that is now being distributed,” he said. “I think there’s a moral imperative on faith leaders to make sure that they are using their platforms to communicate with their constituency regarding the vaccine in a manner that demonstrates how much they care about the people they have been called to serve.”

Williams echoed that sentiment.

“It goes to the style of leadership,” he said. “You lead by example.”

Williams said he would like the community to keep doing its part to slow the spread of the virus.

“As long as we can move the needle, so to speak, in our community – and I’m saying geographically – where our target is 90% vaccinated, if we can get close to that, great,” he said. “I’ll be happy with 75%.”

DuPage County, like many counties in Illinois, has started offering walk-in opportunities to help get people inoculated. In contrast, appointments were required for all vaccinations earlier in the pandemic.

Chugh said the county is lucky to have three vaccines it can put to use.

“We want to make sure we’re reaching them through their trusted leaders and communicating that these vaccines are safe and effective,” she said.

Aurora has hosted a number of vaccination events in recent months targeted specifically at communities of color.

“We are working with the city of Aurora on those events,” Hoff said. “It’s one more clinic in the network of clinics we have. So our plan, our goal in DuPage County is to make vaccination available to all those spots. We want to support the city of Aurora’s clinics focused on specific equity groups.

“We want to get the vaccine to federally qualified health centers for patients that are comfortable going there. We want to support clinics at churches. We want to support clinics at hospitals. Because we know no one clinic fits every group, not every person is comfortable going to the hospital or the government campus to get it. I think they are helpful.”

The end goal, Hoff said, is the same.

To “get everybody vaccinated – no matter how old you are, how you identify, gender, occupation,” Hoff said.