Data and Door Knocking: One City's Push for Racial Equity in Vaccines

March 4, 2021

Photo courtesy of Vanessa Valentin

White Americans are getting vaccinated against COVID-19 at higher rates than Black and Latino people, even though communities of color have been hit hardest by the pandemic. We explore how Chicago is tackling this problem and what other city’s can learn from their efforts.

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The Problem: Racial Disparities in COVID-19 Vaccinations

Even though Black and Latino Americans are more likely to contract and die from COVID-19 compared to white Americans, they have been vaccinated at much lower rates. 

These disparities are driven by various factors including:

  • Older Americans — who are at the top of many vaccination priority lists — are more likely to be white.
  • Many vaccine registration systems are online, and Black and Latino people are less likely to have internet access.
  • Black and Latino adults report being more hesitant about being among the first to get the COVID vaccine, although that hesitancy continues to shrink.

Lack of data is also an issue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only has race and ethnicity data for about half of people who have received at least one vaccine dose so far.

Data source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


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One City's Solution: Chicago

In the early weeks of vaccine distribution in Chicago, only 18% of doses went to Black or Latino people, even though they account for 59% of the city’s population and have been disproportionately impacted by the virus. In response, city leaders took a series of steps that have helped them administer more than half of doses in recent weeks to Black and Latino Chicagoans.


In January, city health officials pulled together data on risk factors including poverty, crowded housing, access to health care, occupation and COVID rates to rank Chicago's neighborhoods in a COVID-19 Community Vulnerability Index. They are now using the index to prioritize resources for the most vulnerable neighborhoods — which are predominantly Black and Latino — including distributing thousands of doses a week for eight weeks to the top 15 neighborhoods.

Community Partnerships

Throughout the pandemic, Chicago health officials have worked closely with nonprofits and faith-based organizations to solicit ideas and provide resources to Black and Latino communities. The city is now partnering with community groups to organize the vaccine clinics in the 15 priority neighborhoods. "What we have basically said is we will provide the vaccine. We will figure out the logistics. We'll hook up with the health care providers. You tell us where, you tell us who," says Chicago Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady.

Removing Barriers

As opposed to using an online sign-up process, volunteers in Chicago's Belmont Cragin neighborhood — the first of the 15 high-need communities to start vaccinating — have made phone calls, sent texts, knocked on doors and gone into small businesses to register 2,000 people each week for weekend vaccine clinics at the local high school, a trusted location in the neighborhood. The city is also allowing anyone over the age of 18 to get vaccinated in these 15 neighborhoods, regardless of health status.

A man in a Chicago Blackhawks hockey jersey signs in at a registration table at a vaccine clinic in a school hallway.
A Belmont Cragin resident signs in for their vaccination appointment at Steinmetz College Prep High School. (Photo by Vanessa Valentin)
Five people pose for a picture wearing masks, winter caps and yellow safety vests.
A group of volunteers pause to take a picture while knocking on doors in Belmont Cragin. (Photo by Vanessa Valentin)

While experts say Chicago’s approach could be a model for other jurisdictions looking to address racial disparities in vaccines, the city does have a unique advantage — out of more than 3,000 local health departments across the country, it is one of only five that is receiving vaccine doses and funding directly from the federal government as opposed to going through their state governments. This allows them greater flexibility and discretion in setting their public health agenda that other communities don’t have.

Even with this flexibility and good intentions, the system is not perfect. Despite targeted resources and support, Belmont Cragin remained a COVID-19 hotspot throughout 2020. Vulnerable neighborhoods not included in the top 15 argue they need targeted support too, and while the rest of Illinois has expanded eligibility to adults under 65 with underlying conditions like cancer and diabetes, Chicago says it is does not have enough supply to start vaccinating those people.

“I say no 100 times a day right now to a lot of providers, communities, individuals, about all things related to vaccine. I have to say no so that we can say yes to these [equity] initiatives,” says Commissioner Arwady.

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Episode Resources

Additional Reporting and Research on Vaccine Equity Efforts

Latest Data on COVID-19 Vaccinations Race/Ethnicity (Nambi Ndugga, Olivia Pham, Latoya Hill, Samantha Artiga and Salem Mengistu; KFF; 3/3/2021)

California will reserve 40% of COVID-19 vaccine for needy in push to speed reopenings Rong-Gong Linn II and Luke Money, Los Angeles Times, 3/3/2021)

Philly Black doctors clinic outpaced the city in vaccinating Black residents, but group says there’s ‘room for improvement’ (Ellie Rushing, Oona Goodin-Smith and Anna Orso; Philadelphia Inquirer; 2/25/2021)

Black and Latino communities are being left behind in the vaccine rollout (Fabiola Cineas, Vox, 2/24/2021)

Taking Vaccine to Where the Virus Is—Equity and Effectiveness in Coronavirus Vaccinations (Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, Maya Petersen and Diane Havlir; JAMA Health Forum; 2/18/2021)

Thousands of Farmworkers Are Prioritized for the Coronavirus Vaccine (Miriam Jordan, New York Times, 3/1/2021)

Biden Administration Recruits Community Clinics To Help Solve Vaccine Inequities (Blake Farmer, NPR, 2/11/2021)

Equity in Vaccination: A Plan to Work with Communities of Color Toward COVID-19 Recovery and Beyond (Monica Schoch-Spana and Emily Brunson, et al; Johns Hopkins University; February 2021)

Building Trust in and Access to a COVID-19 Vaccine Within Communities of Color and Tribal Nations (Trust for America’s Health, December 2020)

How Inequity Gets Built Into America’s Vaccination System (Maryam Jameel and Caroline Chen, ProPublica, 3/1/2021)

Episode Credits


Allison Arwady, MD, MPH, Commissioner, Chicago Department of Public Health

James Rudyk, Executive Director, Northwest Side Housing Center

Vanessa Valentin, Community Relations Director, 36th Ward Alderman’s Office

Adriane Casalotti, Chief of Government and Public Affairs, National Association of County and City Health Officials

The Tradeoffs theme song was composed by Ty Citerman, with additional music this episode by Blue Dot Sessions.

This episode was reported by Ryan Levi and Dan Gorenstein, produced and mixed by Ryan Levi, and produced for the web by Ryan Levi.

Additional thanks to:

Samantha Artiga, Robert Torres, Ron Yee, Ali Khan, Kat Lee, Gina South, Dara Lieberman, John Auerbach, Monica Schoch-Spana, the Tradeoffs Advisory Board and our stellar staff!