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Mayor Lori Lightfoot Provides Update On Chicago's Coronavirus Vaccine Rollout

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Black and Hispanic Americans are about twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as white Americans, yet they have been vaccinated at much lower rates across the country. But in Chicago, about half of the city's vaccinations are for people of color. The mayor of Chicago, of course, is Lori Lightfoot, and she joins us now. Mayor Lightfoot, thanks so much for being with us.

LORI LIGHTFOOT: Good morning, Scott. A pleasure to be with you.

SIMON: Early in the vaccine rollout, less than 20% of vaccine doses went to Chicagoans of color. Now that's half. What did Chicago do that can make a difference? Can it be done in other places?

LIGHTFOOT: Well, we worked extremely hard to overcome vaccine hesitancy in communities of color, particularly Black and Latinx. And really, that hard work began at the very beginning of the pandemic. When we were seeing the disproportionate impact on communities of color of this horrible virus, we went to work in those communities with trusted partners. And I think that hard work over time is starting to bear fruit in the significant uptake.

To go from, you know, the low teens of uptake in the early days of the vaccine program to now over 50% is a remarkable turnaround. And it's really due to the hard work of so many people across our city, certainly led by city government, but really, our partners in the neighborhoods deserve the credit because they recognize this life-saving vaccine has to go to those people that are most in need. And in our city, that means communities of color.

SIMON: What's the messaging in this? Because, of course, you know, a lot of the hesitancy is historic...

LIGHTFOOT: Yup.

SIMON: ...Based on things that obviously - well, what's the messaging key you were able to deliver?

LIGHTFOOT: Look; there's no secret sauce. And it's really a lot of diligence, one-on-one conversations and getting people who are trusted community partners in those neighborhoods who are recognizable. Literally, we've gone door to door for months now to get people educated, provide them with information, really do a lot of myth-busting. And you've just got to put in the hard work to overcome their fears. And I think as people have seen people that they recognize, whether it's a mayor of color, as I am, or their neighbors who are getting the vaccine without adverse consequences, it's bringing people who are really standing on the sidelines into the field of play and saying, all right, I'll do this. I think it's safe.

SIMON: I have to ask you, Mayor Lightfoot, as you know, Chicago Tribune reported this week that the city spent more than $280 million, nearly 60% of the discretionary spending money it got under the CARES coronavirus relief package, on CPD, the Chicago Police Department. Is that true? And what do you say...

LIGHTFOOT: Yes, it is (ph).

SIMON: OK. I'm just going to quote Alderman La Spata...

LIGHTFOOT: Yup.

SIMON: ...The 1st Ward, who says that money should've been sent on - spent on housing assistance and small businesses, not the police.

LIGHTFOOT: Well, we spent tens of millions of dollars on a significant number of community service and social service programs. As you know, Scott, when the CARES package came from Congress, it came through specific line items and grants for programs like homelessness, community health, violence prevention and other things. Those were designated dollars where there was really no flexibility whatsoever in how that money was spent, and we spent it accordingly.

There was some money, however, that the federal government gave to cities like Chicago to address the unprecedented need to respond to COVID-19. And, yes, we spent money on a range of first responder activities because they were at the front lines in many instances, particularly in the early days of our COVID-19 response. So the criticism that, somehow, we should've taken a pass on free money from the federal government that came to address unprecedented and unbudgeted needs that were in our city just doesn't make any sense.

I make no apologies for the fact that we took advantage of the opportunities that the federal government gave us rather than passing on those expenses to our taxpayers. So the choice is, do we actually take advantage of the money that is given us to - by the federal government and save the burden on our taxpayers, or do we just pass along those costs to the taxpayers? I'm going to stand with our taxpayers every single day and do everything that I can to save them from any further burden, and that's exactly what we did.

SIMON: Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago, thanks so much.

LIGHTFOOT: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.