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Local Government

A Specially Called Council Meeting Didn’t Make for a Fun Monday Night

The five-hour meeting ended after midnight and accomplished little other than showing citizens that better communication (and more vaccine) is needed.
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COVID-19 vaccine (Courtesy Baylor Scott & White Health).

The Dallas City Council seems confused. A special meeting called to clarify the city’s role in the deployment of the COVID-19 vaccine ate up the last five hours of Monday night. It was an FAQ come to life, a gumbo of legalese, repeated explanations of state-mandated processes, and a challenge to the mayor’s authority in a time of disaster that went nowhere.

The meeting ended a little after midnight, after which it was abundantly clear that the City Council is having trouble communicating with one another and city staff about what’s being done in terms of outreach for vaccine registrations. Most do seem to approve of the job that Rocky Vaz, the longstanding director of emergency operations, has done in coordinating the city’s response with that of the county. But they all called for more clarity about where to point their constituents for information.

Monday’s meeting had three action items. Council voted to give City Manager T.C. Broadnax unilateral control over doling out city resources like laptops and protective equipment for help in registration drives. The mayor, in his state-appointed position as the city’s emergency management director, had ordered the city manager not to supply council members who wanted to quickly set up physical registration sites to help sign up constituents for vaccine appointments. That is part of why council members Chad West, Paula Blackmon, and Adam Bazaldua called the special meeting. That item passed 10-5.

During a disaster declaration, the state allows the mayor to name an emergency management coordinator. He chose Vaz over Broadnax, in part, he said, because that is always the arrangement. Blackmon contended that this is no ordinary disaster, that it will last longer and affect far more people than emergencies like tornadoes or even Ebola.

She wanted Broadnax in that lead role and supported efforts to “urge” the mayor to reconsider Vaz as his appointed emergency management coordinator. However, that proposed change was withdrawn before it could be put to a vote. That was likely because supporters lacked the votes for approval. A third item to require the mayor to brief the Council regularly about the coronavirus response also failed.

“This is just another silly item,” said North Dallas Councilman Lee Kleinman, who asked the city attorney whether the mayor could simply choose to say there was nothing to report. (He could.)

Monday’s exercise showed the challenge of incorporating local governments into a complicated, fast-moving vaccine rollout, the largest in American history. Disparate communication styles are smashing together, creating frustration among elected officials and blurring public messaging about the response. Some on Council are more aware than others about how things are moving behind the scenes, a contrast that led last night to mind-numbing repetition, as members asked who can get the vaccine and when.

The reality is that demand is far outpacing supply, limiting how creative the city can be when it comes to getting shots into arms—and which arms go first. Vaz said the city is preparing to expand operations to hubs in the south at some point, locations like Paul Quinn College, UNT Dallas, Bahama Beach Waterpark, or the Singing Hills Recreation Center. But the city’s hands are currently tied: putting a hub near a neighborhood wouldn’t change the state’s order of who can get the vaccines. And there aren’t currently enough doses to even get strategic.

“We need more vaccines. We get more vaccine and more supplies, then we’ll open up more hubs,” Vaz said. “We need to start identifying those locations now.”

The city of Dallas today is expected to receive its first direct allocation of 5,000 doses, which it hopes to begin administering to the public on Thursday. It is the first time the city has been granted a supply from the state, which will be administered by Dallas Fire-Rescue paramedics in the parking garage of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. It is now one of six vaccination hubs in Dallas County, joining Parkland Health and Hospital System, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Baylor University Medical Center, the city of Garland, and the county’s health department as the area’s largest vaccine providers.

Some members of the City Council weren’t happy to find out about the deployment through social media. Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who represents South Dallas, noted that even the ad hoc committee set up for updates on the coronavirus response had not been informed. Johnson joined dozens of mayors who signed onto a letter asking for direct allocations to be given to cities to vaccinate large numbers of people. He defended his public announcement on social media and through a press release, which he said came quickly after learning the news.

Council members questioned the details of the plan, but the strategy seems in line with the arrangement at other high-volume vaccine hubs.

The county has operated a registry for about a month now, which has grown to about 400,000 people. Each week the city will receive a list of about 10,000 of those and begin arranging appointments. Those people are all either 1A or 1B designations, which means they’re healthcare workers, members of the public older than 65, or have a chronic condition that makes them more vulnerable to the disease. Vaz said the county is using an algorithm to prioritize the most at-risk individuals on the list, using a mix of ZIP code data and health information meant to identify the people most vulnerable to infection.

“You’ve got 400,000 people and we’re getting 5,000 doses a week. Do the math,” Vaz said. “People are going to get more frustrated and we can communicate as best we can, very clear and very concise: register, wait for an appointment, and when vaccines are available, we’ll get you an appointment. That’s all we can do at this point.”

Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn, of Far North Dallas, laid out her preferred plan for priority vaccinations. She wanted the city to focus on occupation and housing status. She suggested mobile vaccination vans that could serve residents who can’t leave home.

But none of that is possible under the state’s current allocations or its priority rules. Local governments can choose recipients based on factors like vulnerability, health status, and age. They cannot prioritize based on occupation. Council learned that not even police officers are currently eligible to get the vaccine, if they don’t qualify under the state’s 1B designation.

There is still lingering frustration over the county’s early vaccine rollout at Fair Park. The county prioritized individuals 75 and older, then 70, then 65. It briefly allowed walk-ups to help encourage more people from the neighborhood to show up. City Council members said their constituents were asking questions of them that they could not answer. They wanted more clarity when policies shift.

“If we don’t get that information, how can we inform our constituents?” said Councilman Casey Thomas, the West Oak Cliff representative who also chairs the city’s ad hoc coronavirus committee. “That’s why I asked whether we will get updated as criteria changes.”

Vaz said the most important thing was to get people signed up and then to preach patience as they wait for their appointment. He promised to provide more regular updates, including details on the algorithm the county is using to determine priority. Council members asked the city’s communications director, Catherine Cuellar, about direct mail efforts and whether it was possible to notify residents in their water bills of the need to register.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s communication strategy—memos, press releases, social media, emailed newsletters, and television appearances—is still bothering his colleagues. Councilwoman Carolyn King Arnold, who represents parts of Oak Cliff and southern Dallas, said it had been almost 13 months since she’d had a conversation with the mayor outside of a public meeting. (When asked to verify, Tristan Hallman, the mayor’s chief of policy and communication, said Arnold “occasionally sends an email, but otherwise doesn’t reach out.”)

In recent days, the mayor sent out a newsletter that accused council members of “shenanigans” by setting up their own registration hubs prior to analyzing data to identify parts of town that need help signing up. Councilman West maintained that it was more important to act quickly; he said pop-up events had signed up 750 people “who otherwise wouldn’t be registered today.” (The mayor has since approved the ZIP codes where registration centers could go, but nothing is currently stood up. Council members meanwhile have arranged for events in gyms and supermarket parking lots and secured laptops through the county.)

At one point, an unmuted council member let out a deep sigh while the mayor was speaking.

“I don’t have any disagreement with anybody that we heard some good information today and some good questions were asked today,” Johnson said. “But where I have to respectfully disagree with some colleagues on the City Council is that we needed this meeting tonight to do this.”

After five hours, it is hard to say that this meeting assured the public that their elected officials are moving in concert regarding the vaccine distribution. If anything, it showed the importance of having clear communication and the frustration that festers when that communication doesn’t exist. Dallas is hardly the only Texas county having trouble with its vaccine sign-ups. Tarrant had problems with its registry tool. Until a waitlist launched yesterday, Harris County would only open its registry when spots became available. Bexar County didn’t even have a centralized registry two weeks ago.

Until a federal deployment plan is instituted, the public is depending on local governments working together. After Monday night’s meeting, the city clearly has some distance to make up.

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