As delta variant spreads in Chicago suburbs, mass vaccination sites to close in favor of ‘hyperlocal strategy’ to target areas where inoculations lag

The three remaining Cook County mass vaccination sites will close this month, officials said Thursday, while warning the threat of the delta variant particularly looms for pockets of the suburbs that have low inoculation rates.

The Forest Park and Des Plaines vaccination centers will close Tuesday, while the Matteson site is packing up the next day, Cook County Health CEO Israel Rocha Jr. said at a news conference. Earlier in May, the Tinley Park, River Grove and South Holland locations shut down.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the vaccine outreach campaign must now instead blanket low-vaccinated suburbs with a “hyperlocal strategy” as the delta variant, more contagious than the original coronavirus, continues spreading in the county.

“We must continue our outreach now more than ever to protect Cook County residents, particularly those who are vulnerable and have not yet been vaccinated,” Preckwinkle said. “All you need to do is listen to the news of the evening about the spread of the delta virus. What a perilous timeline.”

Earlier this month, the delta variant made up the majority of the country’s new COVID-19 cases, and Chicago public health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady has said she expects the strain to also dominate the city’s caseload later this summer.

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The vaccines largely remain effective against the more infectious variant, but the county is still seeing entrenched racial and geographic disparities in inoculation rates. Just under 60% of suburban Cook County residents have at least one dose of the vaccine, but those figures are 45.5% in the south suburbs versus 67.9% in the north suburbs, according to the suburban public health department website.

A little more than half of white suburban residents and three-quarters of those of Asian descent have gotten at least the first shot, but that number is about 40% for Black residents and 45% for Latinos.

Because of those disparities, Rocha warned that any potential next COVID-19 wave from the delta variant could disproportionately land in low-vaccinated areas.

“If your community is below 50% on vaccination rates, you’re going to have a greater chance of having the delta variant come to your community,” Rocha said. “That is just a point of information.”

To boost vaccinations, particularly in the south suburbs, vaccine clinics will spring up at back-to-school events, festivals, in the forest preserves and at other locations, said Dr. Kiran Joshi, senior medical officer and co-lead for the Cook County Department of Public Health. He added there will be more partnerships with community organizations and “trusted messengers” as well as mobile clinics.

Joshi did not give specific numbers on how much the delta variant has spread in Cook County, but he said only a small proportion of new positive cases are tested for the strain, and the totals are doubling every two weeks. He said that trend is likely to continue and should concern unvaccinated residents.

“Let me just pause here and say to any who have been hesitating about being vaccinated, please, I implore you to hesitate no longer,” Joshi said. “We are very concerned about the spread of this so-called delta variant.”