West Chicago factory vaccinates 600 front-line workers

More than 600 employees of a West Chicago factory received COVID-19 vaccines Monday after a push from lawmakers and advocates to secure shots for front-line workers at higher risk of contracting the virus.

Jel Sert Co., the city's largest employer, offered first doses of the Moderna vaccine to its essential workforce. The food and beverage manufacturer makes Fla-Vor-Ice freezer pops, Wyler's powdered drink mixes, puddings and other products for dessert brands.

The clinic was the result of months of planning to bring the lifesaving vaccine directly to workers in West Chicago, one of the hardest hit towns in DuPage County, state Sen. Karina Villa said. One year into the pandemic, the city of about 27,000 people has seen 4,178 reported COVID-19 cases.

"From Day 1, when this pandemic hit, they were told that they had to keep going to work," said Villa, who was joined by company employees at a news conference Monday. "They were told that in order to help keep food on our tables, to keep our students fed, our children, our seniors fed, that they had to keep coming to work."

Jel Sert President Ken Wegner credited Villa and state Rep. Maura Hirschauer for helping factory employees access vaccinations. The effort to get workers inoculated also involved the city, the county health department, Service Employees International Union Local 1 officials and Jewel-Osco. Staff from the pharmacy chain administered shots on-site Monday.

Workers will receive their second dose April 12. Moderna vaccines require two doses weeks apart.

Jel Sert is not making vaccinations mandatory.

In the weeks leading up to the clinic, community leaders, including Cristobal Cavazos, founder of the Immigrant Solidarity DuPage advocacy group, called on the company to provide vaccines for vulnerable workers, many of whom live in multigenerational households.

"These folks at Jel Sert, they haven't stopped working," Cavazos said. "A lot of the people here are women. A lot of the people here are in their 40s and their 50s. A lot of people here live with their grandmothers and their mothers and their elderly parents and little children."

So far, the city has hosted two mass vaccination clinics. An event at West Chicago High School reached teachers and some eligible residents.

A second clinic, held in a 31,000-square-foot facility at the DuPage Airport, distributed vaccines to about 2,300 people, Mayor Ruben Pineda said.

Villa hopes other manufacturing facilities - there are hundreds in her legislative district - make vaccines available to their workers.

"We are going to keep on fighting to make sure that the essential workers who kept putting food on our table during this pandemic are taken care of, that they are not forgotten and that they are going to have access to the vaccine."

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