CHICAGO — As the medical assistant put on rubber gloves and readied the syringe, 5-year-old Victoria Macias, wearing a pink Minnie Mouse mask and white blouse, turned her head away and closed her eyes.
“It’s not going to hurt, OK? I’ll hold your hand, I’ll hold your hand,” said her older sister, Alondra, 8. “Deep breath, deep breath.”
The medical assistant, Rachel Blancas, poked Victoria’s left arm for about a second. Victoria opened her eyes. And with that, the Macias sisters were among the first 5- to 11-year-olds to get the COVID-19 vaccine in the Midwest’s largest city.
Their mom, Maria Lopez, took them out of school early on Nov. 4 to stop by the mass immunization site on Chicago’s Southwest Side. “They have gotten every other vaccine available, so why not this one?” said Lopez, 43, a real estate broker.
Esperanza Health Centers, a nonprofit health provider that is operating the site, has been the top pediatric COVID-19 vaccine provider in Chicago, according to the city’s Department of Public Health, administering about 10,000 immunizations to 12- to 17-year-olds. Now that the Food and Drug Administration has authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech shot for kids ages 5-11, the organization’s efforts may provide lessons for other places in the U.S. that have struggled to vaccinate children.
“People in the community trust us,” said Veronica Flores, manager of COVID-19 response for Esperanza, which has five medical clinics that see patients regardless of insurance or immigration status. “When the pandemic started, we were one of the first ones doing testing.”
At one point, she noted, Esperanza was responsible for more than half of all COVID-19 tests done in the city. The federally qualified health center’s patient population, which is about 90% Hispanic, has doubled in the wake of COVID-19.
Everyone who works with patients at Esperanza is bilingual. The immunization site has extended hours and is open five days a week, including to people without appointments. The clinic will even pay for patients’ Uber rides to get vaccinated.
If parents or guardians have questions or concerns about the pediatric vaccine, Esperanza connects them to one of its doctors.
Dr. Mark Minier, pediatric medical director, seeks to reassure patients, telling them the shot, which is given at a lower dose than for teens and adults, has been found to be both safe and effective for 5- to 11-year-olds. The relatively mild side effects may include pain at the injection site, headaches and fatigue that could last a day or two. In addition, he reminds them that children are at risk from the virus.