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In Year 3 Of Pandemic, A COVID Initiative Builds Momentum

CERCL members Dr. Abigail Silva and Gwen Smith-Haney administer COVID-19 tests in Maywood. | Courtesy CERCL 

Tuesday, January 18, 2022 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews 

If you ever encounter Gwen Smith-Haney during free COVID-19 testing on Wednesdays and Thursdays, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., at Lightford Recreation Center, 809 Madison St. in Maywood, be prepared to tell her you’re vaccinated.

And if you’re not, brace for her wrath, which in her case is a mixture of warmth, charm and frank mother wit.

Smith-Haney, a community liaison for the Covid Equity Response Collaborative: Loyola (CERCL), the entity that hosts the free testing, may well be the face of vaccination advocacy in Proviso Township.

“I try to lay out the facts,” she said. “I don’t try to jump on them and say, ‘You have to do this, you must do this.’ I tell them they have to make an educated decision. Don’t listen to the myths that are out there. We can get you the facts.”

And CERCL, which was created in April 2020, may be the township’s best weapon in the fight to inoculate residents against the pervasive coronavirus and its manifold mutations, including Delta and Omicron.

Since October, COVID-19 cases have been on the uptick across the country. In Cook County, the 7-day moving average of cases increased from around 300 on Oct. 13, 2021 to roughly 5,300 on Jan. 2, according to data compiled by the Cook County Department of Public Health.

Since then, cases in Cook County have been trending downward again. As of Jan. 11, the weekly moving average was at roughly 3,000.

In Maywood, cases are up nearly 70% over the last two weeks, but only about half of the village’s population has been fully vaccinated. Around 71% of the village’s population has received at least one vaccine dose.

“We’re doing everything to encourage people to get their shots, including the second shot and the boosters,” said Dr. Abigail Silva, CERCL’s co-lead and an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago.

According to CERCL’s internal data that Silva provided, the organization has administered over 1,500 COVID-19 tests since June. In addition to administering tests, they’ve also hosted eight vaccination clinics that resulted in 500 residents getting vaccinated.

Silva said CERCL always provides people who need them with references pointing to various legal and social support services.

The organization also streamed nine virtual community conversations, (a third of them with Village Free Press), created three public service announcements (PSA’s) and canvassed throughout Maywood over the summer.

CERCL volunteers have canvassed Maywood in order to raise awareness about COVID-19 testing and vaccination. | Courtesy CERCL 

“One of our PSA’s features a bunch of kids talking about why they got vaccinated and a lot of it has to do with them wanting to keep their families safe,” said Dr. Amy Luke, the chair of public health sciences at Loyola University Chicago and a CERCL co-founder who lives in Maywood.

Luke said that the idea for CERCL came about after a phone call conversation she had with Maywood Mayor Nathaniel Booker, who was a village trustee at the time.

Booker wanted to know if Loyola had any plans to run a community testing clinic in the area. Loyola didn’t have any, so Luke decided to see if she and some of her colleagues, such as Silva, could help fill the void.

Now entering its third year, CERCL regularly attracts future public health professionals like Marisa Kutchma, a student at Loyola’s Parkinson School of Health Sciences and Public Health in Maywood.

“Many students at Loyola were trained to go out in the neighborhood of Maywood and knock on doors and initiate conversations about COVID-19,” Kutchma said.

The Loyola student said the canvassers asked residents about their vaccination status and struck up conversations about the vaccines themselves. They also connected residents with resources by handing out bags full of information on the vaccines and testing sites, along with personal protective equipment (PPE). As of last month, CERCL had given out more than 5,000 of the bags, members said.

“There were 3,735 homes that were canvassed and out of those 941 answered the door,” Kutchma said. “Among those who answered, 669 of those homes had residents who were vaccinated for a total of 1,729 vaccinated people living in them.”

She said she understands those who did not want to answer such personal questions, “especially when strangers are coming to your door to ask you questions.”

Despite the reservations among residents, the canvassing slowly built community trust both in CERCL and in the vaccines, Kutchma said.

But with the virus spreading faster than ever and many residents still unvaccinated, CERCL members sometimes wonder aloud about the limits of persuasion. Do they have to shock people with more statistics?

“This is a long slog,” Dr. Silva said. “This is exhaustive. You have to keep at it, keep having those conversations. We have to wait it out and not stop being that resource. And then, we have to craft different messages for different people.”

At the end of the day, Smith-Haney said, all of CERCL’s efforts amount to one overriding goal.

“It’s all about gaining trust,” she said.

To learn more about the Covid Equity Response Collaborative: Loyola, visit: cercl.org

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