Mayor Brandon Johnson attributes recent measles cases at migrant shelter to vaccine hesitancy

As federal health officials respond to a second child in Chicago’s largest migrant shelter developing measles, Mayor Brandon Johnson on Monday ascribed the recent cases to vaccine hesitancy and ramped up messaging on getting inoculated against the disease.

The mayor responded to questions about the quarantined facility on Cermak Road and Halsted Street by noting that “most Chicagoans are vaccinated (against measles), particularly those of course who use the public space, public schools in particular.” The second child who caught measles is a Chicago Public Schools student, officials said Sunday.

“We’re going literally floor-to-floor with partners, encouraging migrants to get vaccinated,” Johnson said to reporters at an event unrelated to the measles cases. “There are some individuals, whether you’re a migrant or not, people that have some hesitancy and some reticence around it. And so we’re doing some real serious education.”

But it remains unclear how much progress has been made vaccinating Chicago’s growing population of asylum seekers. Last Thursday, the city reported its first case of measles since 2019, which Johnson said Monday was documented on the Northwest Side. A second case, this time involving a migrant child in the Pilsen shelter, was reported Friday. The third case, which was the second at the shelter, was reported Sunday.

The Chicago Public Department of Public Health did not provide vaccination data on Chicago’s migrant population, nor did the Illinois Department of Public Health, when reached Monday. Officials with Cook County Health, the main medical provider in charge of migrant vaccinations in Chicago, did not immediately respond Monday to inquiries on inoculation numbers.

A two-dose combined measles/mumps/rubella vaccine is among the state’s requirements for all kindergarten through 12th grade students, unless a parent or guardian submits either proof that the child previously contracted measles or a religious exemption, according to CPS records, which show pre-kindergarten students must receive one dose. CPS didn’t immediately answer questions Monday about how it verifies students’ measles vaccination statuses, including for those living at the Pilsen shelter.

In a message to parents Sunday regarding the site’s second confirmed measles case, this time involving a CPS student, the district said that staff and families at the impacted school have been notified about the situation. “We are working with our partners at CDPH to determine vaccination status for all school-aged shelter residents,” CPS wrote.

Measles, a serious respiratory infection that causes a rash and high fever, can be particularly severe for young children and can lead to other complications such as pneumonia. A team from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was dispatched to Chicago to assist with screening and vaccinating residents at the Pilsen shelter, CDPH said in its Sunday statement.

All residents of that shelter who were not finished with their measles vaccination series were placed on a 21-day lockdown, according to CDPH.

“As far as what we’re doing, our Chicago Department of Public Health has been on the ground in various spaces, particularly this one shelter that has had this outbreak,” the mayor said Monday. “The number of migrants in particular who were unvaccinated, who are vaccinated now, that number has substantially grown in terms of those who have gotten shots in their arms.”

The lockdown in the Pilsen shelter has prompted concerns from some aldermen and migrant advocates over how proactively officials have been trying to vaccinate migrants. It also comes amid a looming date this weekend for Johnson’s migrant shelter evictions policy to be enforced for the first time — unless it is delayed for a fourth time.

As of Friday, 1,896 migrants were staying at the quarantined shelter, 962 of them children. Presiding Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, said Sunday the share of unvaccinated residents in that shelter dipped to 13%.

A close ally of the mayor, the Pilsen alderman also said last week after the first migrant child contracted measles: “Historically, communities of color experience a lower rate of vaccinations due to generational systemic barriers, in many instances not aided or even exacerbated by government-run institutions.”

United Working Families executive director Kennedy Bartley, a close Johnson advisor, said on X that there have been nearly 30 vaccination events at shelters citywide that have inoculated almost 15,000 migrants.

“However, there is a backlog, one that has long existed,” Bartley posted Sunday, noting she is not speaking on behalf of the administration. “… because of that backlog, not every new arrival is vaccinated.”