Doctors in Chicago are making house calls to give vulnerable patients the Covid-19 vaccine
(CNN) -- Hattie Blumenberg can't easily get to a mass vaccination center. The 90-year-old woman has limited transportation, and leaving her Chicago home would require someone physically carrying her from the house to a vehicle.
But a new program at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center is helping protect Blumenberg and other people who live in neighborhoods with the highest Covid-19 death and positivity rates. Its doctors are distributing vaccines to Rush patients who are 65 and older and can't get to a clinic.
Thanks to the program, Hattie and her daughter, Jackie Blumenberg, have gotten the Covid-19 vaccine in their home.
The Rush@Home program offers house calls to eligible patients and so far has vaccinated at least 71 people. The program has 120 people enrolled and a hospital spokesperson says the waitlist is growing.
"It a blessing and it's great," Hattie Blumenberg told CNN moments after she got the vaccine. "I hope everybody that takes it, that they do well. I think people should get it."
The Blumenbergs have already had one coronavirus scare. Another of Hattie Blumenberg's daughters, Nora Blumenberg, spent two weeks in the hospital and required oxygen after she was diagnosed with Covid-19 in November.
"Some of everything was running through my mind, but I had to put my trust in the Lord," Hattie Blumenberg said from her Chicago living room while talking about her daughter. "She is still struggling."
Nora Blumenberg, 68, lives in a high-rise facility for seniors. Her family said she could barely walk to the trash chute, a few feet from her apartment door, without gasping for air.
Jackie Blumenberg said her sister getting sick, and the lingering effects of the virus, erased whatever hesitancy she had toward getting the vaccine.
"They had to stop her from talking on the phone to reserve her energy. When she was talking, she couldn't hardly breathe," Jackie Blumenberg said. "My sister still isn't right. Rather than my life to drastically not be the same, I'll take the shot. This is not no flu. Life or death -- which one you choose? It ain't hard with me to figure out."
Why the most vulnerable aren't getting vaccinated
But not everyone who wants the vaccine is able to get one. And access often falls along racial lines.
The Kaiser Family Foundation tracks vaccination rates in 27 states by race and ethnicity. The overall vaccination rate among White people is about three times higher than the rate for Hispanic people and twice as high as the rate for Black people, according Kaiser's data.
The challenge in Chicago -- and cities all over the country -- is that many of the most vulnerable residents are not getting vaccinated.
Dr. Elizabeth Davis with Rush University Medical Center said the reason can be traced to systemic racism in the vaccine rollout.
"Despite the best intentions it (the vaccine) has disproportionately gone to White people. And I think it's partially because of the system ... there's structural racism that underlies all the structures in our city. We know that there's structural racism in the health care sector as well," Davis told CNN. "And so, I think we're seeing that play out even in things like where, for example, the pharmacies are."
Many residents of Chicago's west side, like Hattie Blumenberg, don't have pharmacies nearby, making it more difficult to get a vaccine.
The disparities are clear in the numbers from the Kaiser Family Foundation. As of mid-February Latinos made up 26% of coronavirus cases in Illinois but only 9% of vaccinations. In Maryland, Black people make up 33% of cases but only 16% of vaccinations.
The numbers are even more staggering in California, where Latinos account for 55% of coronavirus cases but only 18% of vaccinations.
Uber and Walgreens have partnered to offer rides to vaccination sites
Davis says it is time to move beyond the surface-level explanations we repeatedly hear.
"Oh, well, Black people have more diabetes, you know, but that's not an explanation for why more (Black) people are getting Covid ... it turns out in research it is also not a good explanation for why there are more deaths," she said.
"Why are frontline health care workers disproportionately Black, like all those essential workers that we're talking about? I think if you keep digging deeper and say, 'Well, why is that?' what you get to is racism."
It's a problem President Joe Biden says he is trying to fix.
"The fact is, if you're 70 years old, you don't have a vehicle and you live in a tough neighborhood, meaning it's a high concentration of Covid, you're not likely to be able to walk five miles to get a vaccine," he said during a February CNN town hall.
Biden's Covid-19 relief package includes funding for mobile vaccinations, which have begun in states like Texas, California and Massachusetts.
Walgreens and Uber announced a partnership last month to help drive equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines in underserved communities. In a statement the companies say they will "combine their expertise to address common barriers to health equity including education, access and technology."
As vaccines become available for mass distribution, Walgreens and Uber say they will "roll out several initiatives over the coming months," including free transportation to Walgreens stores and offsite vaccine clinics; access to pre-schedule rides on Uber when a vaccine appointment is made; and a new educational program with the National Urban League to address vaccine hesitancy.
Patient's daughter: 'This is a blessing'
In Chicago, about five miles from the Blumenberg home, a Rush vaccination team also showed up Maltilde Flores' home. She, too, lives in a pharmacy desert, far from sites offering vaccines.
The 92-year-old's daughter, Carmen Flores-Rance, said getting her mom out of the house would require moving mountains.
"This is a blessing to have somebody come to the house, especially when you have somebody who is Latina, a 92-year-old beautiful mother who has dementia and can't do anything for herself," she said.
"Not a lot of seniors have this kind of service. I am very blessed to have you guys here."
And as doctors have learned in Chicago, matching vaccines with eligible patients can be a balancing act.
On the day CNN met the Blumenberg family, another patient was unable to get their scheduled vaccine due to a scheduling conflict. Immediately, the vaccination team had to find someone else who was eligible to receive the extra dose.
"We never want to waste any vaccines," Davis said. "It is such an important thing for people to receive, so when we're out in the field we have to be very careful to bring the exact number of vaccines that we need."
Meanwhile, the Blumenbergs say the Rush vaccination program may have saved them -- not only from Covid, but from an unequal system that overlooks patients like them.
"Nobody is above anybody," Jackie Blumenberg said. "We all bleed the same."
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