About 450 senior citizens and caregivers were able to get vaccinated at the pop-up clinic organized at the North Riverside Village Commons on Feb. 21. The event was a collaboration between village officials and several senior services agencies serving residents of the western suburbs. (Bob Uphues/Editor)

The village of North Riverside in partnership with several other agencies serving senior citizens pulled together on short notice a COVID-19 vaccine clinic on Feb. 21 that inoculated about 450 people, including some 170 seniors from North Riverside.

Village Trustee Joseph Mengoni, who is one of three people running for North Riverside mayor in April, said that he was approached to help pull together the clinic because of his experience organizing other large-scale clinics for clients and employees of UCP Seguin of Greater Chicago, where he is executive director.

In three vaccine clinics organized by UCP Seguin earlier this month in Cicero and in DuPage County, Mengoni said the agency was able to vaccinate more than 1,000 Seguin clients and employees.

Since Cook County Health opened its North Riverside clinic to senior citizens and essential workers in Phase 1B of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine program, Mengoni said he’s received many calls from frustrated residents who can’t schedule an appointment.

“I thought, ‘We’ve got to host something here,’” Mengoni said. “If we can do something for our seniors in town, it would  make it so much easier than trying to find an appointment.”

Two weeks ago, Mengoni had been talking to Debra Verschelde, executive director of Aging Care Connections, which serves North Riverside and other western suburbs, about organizing a local clinic.

Their talks were just informal and nothing had been planned. Then on Feb. 18, Verschelde called him.

“She called and said this one just fell in our lap,” Mengoni said.

While Mengoni was the local connection, the clinic itself was the result of a collaboration between many partners, including Age Options, Solutions for Care, Aging Care Connections and Oak Park Senior Services.

The Pfizer vaccines administered on Sunday to senior citizens and caregivers in the gym at the North Riverside Village Commons came through Chicago Internal Medical Practice and Research (CIMPAR), a Melrose Park-based medical group that had received vaccines from the Cook County Department of Public Health.

Mengoni had worked with CIMPAR for a pair of UCP Seguin vaccine clinics in DuPage County earlier this month.

“These are not people who would be able to find their way on the internet, and that’s who we’re aiming at – those with the highest need.”

Diane Slezak, CEO of Age Options

Nine nurses from CIMPAR were on hand in North Riverside to administer the shots, aided by a group of about 20 volunteers drawn from UCP Seguin staff, North Riverside village employees including Village Administrator Sue Scarpiniti and her staff, Fire Chief Bob McDermott and a handful of elected officials, including Mengoni, Trustee Terri Sarro, Village Clerk Kathy Ranieri and former Trustee Jason Bianco. Riverside Township Trustee Michael Dropka, a North Riverside resident, was also among the volunteers.

Maricela Jimenez, a nurse from CIMPAR, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to North Riverside resident Eugene Koszala during the pop-up clinic at the North Riverside Village Commons gymnasium on Feb. 21. (Bob Uphues/Editor)

“You can see that these people are really in need,” said Diane Slezak, a Brookfield resident and the CEO of Age Options, an Oak Park-based agency that provides services and resources for seniors. “These are not people who would be able to find their way on the internet, and that’s who we’re aiming at – those with the highest need. You see all the people on walkers and wheelchairs.”

When Mengoni got the call Feb. 18 from Verschelde, it touched off a concerted effort by North Riverside village staff as well as employees at the partner agencies to reach out to residents and clients to schedule appointments.

That effort began in earnest on Friday, Feb. 19 and continued Saturday. The village compiled its list of seniors to call from water billing records and those who applied for senior citizen discounts on vehicle stickers.

Pam Foy, senior financial analyst for the village of North Riverside who was one of several tasked with contacting senior citizens to schedule appointments, said they probably made between 300 and 350 phone calls in scheduling 170 vaccines for North Riverside residents for the Feb. 21 clinic.

“Most of them don’t have email, they don’t use the computer,” Mengoni said. “[Staff] went to residents’ homes on their way home from work and dropped off the forms so people could fill everything out beforehand.”

The rest of the slots were scheduled for senior citizens throughout the suburban area who are served by the various senior service agencies involved.

Oak Park resident Nilsa LaSalle said she had been trying to land a vaccine appointment for weeks when she received a call from Oak Park Township Senior Services late last week.

“It was a fiasco trying to get an appointment,” said LaSalle, who had tried the Walgreens, Jewel-Osco, the Oak Park Health Department and other websites without success. “It’s been like a full-time job. I was very much relieved.”

Elaine Morgan, a Maywood resident who is raising her two grandchildren, said she got her appointment through Aging Care Connections. She said she hoped getting a shot herself would help ease her grandchildren’s fears of getting vaccinated.

“They’re scare about the shot and COVID,” Morgan said. “This will help, seeing mom get the shot.”

“It was great to see all the partnerships,” said Paula Basta, the director of the Illinois Department on Aging, which provides state funding to agencies like Age Options to do vaccine clinics.

Basta, who also received a vaccine at the clinic in North Riverside, said it’s not uncommon right now for these vaccine clinics to come together within days.

“It’s typical at this point,” Basta said. “Everything shifts and changes very rapidly.”

Because the North Riverside clinic went off smoothly, officials are hoping that another will be scheduled in the future. To prepare, the village has also begun compiling a waiting list of residents wanting a vaccine.

Any North Riverside senior citizen who would like to get on the waiting list can call the village offices at 708-447-4211.