800 senior citizens get COVID-19 vaccinations in Itasca

  • Ethel Schwolow and Josephina Suazo, both 100 and from Roselle, get their Moderna COVID-19 vaccination Monday at the Itasca Park District Fitness Center from Osman Meah of Jewel-Osco.

    Ethel Schwolow and Josephina Suazo, both 100 and from Roselle, get their Moderna COVID-19 vaccination Monday at the Itasca Park District Fitness Center from Osman Meah of Jewel-Osco. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Roselle resident Ethel Schwolow, who just turned 100 years-old in February, gets her Moderna shot Monday at the Itasca Park District Fitness Center from Osman Meah of Jewel-Osco.

    Roselle resident Ethel Schwolow, who just turned 100 years-old in February, gets her Moderna shot Monday at the Itasca Park District Fitness Center from Osman Meah of Jewel-Osco. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 3/8/2021 7:38 PM

Hundreds of senior citizens, some riding in wheelchairs, lined up at the Itasca Park District Fitness Center on Monday to receive their first COVID-19 vaccines.

The average age of the 800 recipients was 76, including two -- Ethel Schwolow and Josephina Suazo -- who were 100 years old.

 

"Everything was handled professionally," Schwolow said after receiving her vaccine. "It all moved perfectly, and nobody wasted any time. I am happy to receive it and I feel great right now."

The Itasca Park District led the event. Volunteers from Itasca Community Library and the Roselle, Bloomingdale, Medinah, and Wood Dale park districts coordinated with each other in the effort and to help with the site's operations.

Eligible recipients of the first Moderna vaccine shot were residents age 65 and older who were contacted by phone by the villages of Roselle and Itasca.

Itasca Park District Executive Director Maryfran Leno said seniors moved through the rec center at a rapid pace, with an average of 33 vaccinated every 15 minutes.

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Only three potential recipients who signed up to receive vaccinations did not participate. Monday's vaccine recipients will receive their second doses April 5.

"It's great to see that we're getting the vaccines out in DuPage County," State Sen. Tom Cullerton said at the event. "Our park districts have been incredible partners in this effort. The more people we can get vaccinated, the sooner we can get things back to normal."

The push to reach out to local seniors in need of vaccinations started March 1, when village officials in Roselle and Itasca made robocalls using their reverse 911 systems. Those systems are frequently used to send recorded voice messages of safety alerts and other information to landline telephones and registered cellphones within a defined geographic location.

Leno said the robocalls were used to help alert seniors who may lack internet access or skills needed to sign up online for vaccinations.

Comparing the frantic "first-come, first-serve" basis of online vaccine sign-ups to "The Hunger Games," Leno said the robocall distribution was the most effective way to reach seniors and it helped spread via word-of-mouth to other residents.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It really took that technology barrier away from people who aren't able to sign in for a slot at 3 a.m.," she said. "It worked but we still have more people we need to help."

The list of recipients was finalized within 48 hours of the first calls. After robocalls, Leno said, more than 2,000 calls came into Itasca and Roselle park district offices from people asking about vaccination eligibility, crashing the districts' servers within minutes. Calls came in from eligible people the park district had contacted and others who heard about the vaccines via word-of-mouth.

There are 1,000 people who were eligible to receive the vaccine but couldn't because there weren't enough doses available, officials said. It is currently unknown when those people will be able to receive the vaccine from the districts.

"Fingers are crossed hoping that we'll be able to get another date soon for them and for people with disabilities," Leno said.

Jewel-Osco liaison Osman Mead contacted Leno about hosting a mass vaccination site, one of many in the Chicago area he has been coordinating since December 2020. The goal was to remove barriers for the highest risk group to get easy access to the COVID vaccination without a computer, keeping it in a locally centralized suburban area.

Fifty volunteers across the districts helped with the event, and the volunteers also were vaccination.

• Trey Arline is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

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