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Local Government

Dallas Political Battles Further Complicate Fair Vaccine Distribution

Local governments are responsible for getting vaccines in people's arms. It isn't going smoothly because they don't all agree on the best path forward.
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The Fair Park COVID-19 vaccine site (courtesy: Dallas County)

If you live in Dallas and hope to get the COVID-19 vaccine soon, good luck. Bureaucracy and infighting are in far greater supply.

The mayor is at odds with the county judge and members of the City Council over how to register residents for vaccinations. The state of Texas has threatened the County Commissioners Court with pulling the Fair Park mega center’s vaccine supply, which triggered an emergency meeting to kill an order. And members of the City Council allege the mayor is making it harder to get people living in poor neighborhoods signed up for appointments. It has been a mess.

It started with the vaccination center at Fair Park. The county wants people to register to get their spot, a message that hasn’t been effectively communicated to underserved neighborhoods in southern parts of the city. So when the registry launched, three weeks ago, residents from more affluent parts of town flooded it. That led county commissioners to pass an order that would prioritize residents vulnerable to the virus in 11 underserved ZIP codes, nine of which are south of Interstate 30 and east of Interstate-45 — which in turn led the state to threaten to pull vaccine allotments. Commissioners were forced to rescind the order Wednesday night. (Those 11 ZIP codes were chosen because they ranked high on the county health department’s vulnerability index or were identified by Parkland as the county’s most inequitably served.)

The state allows local governments to prioritize appointments, but they can’t make those decisions without a robust registry. While about 319,000 people have signed up to get the vaccine, county officials say the vast majority of those are from ZIP codes with plenty of pharmacies, doctor’s offices, and hospitals. Fair Park’s center was set up to prioritize residents in a part of town that lacks such infrastructure. About 90 percent of the county’s vaccines are actually going to hospitals and clinics that are largely concentrated north of downtown. Including Fair Park, there are just eight providers that have received vaccine between I-45 and Balch Springs below I-30.

In an interview Thursday, County Judge Clay Jenkins said just 27,000 people had registered from those 11 underserved ZIP codes, which are home to about 600,000 residents.

“You can prioritize, but you can’t exclude,” Jenkins said. “We can’t be prescriptive in our order, but we can talk about the need for prioritization.”

Jenkins noticed this problem last week and started reaching out to churches and community leaders to encourage residents from poorer neighborhoods to go to Fair Park. He began vaccinating walk-ups, which was in contrast to the original plan. The mayor learned about Jenkins’ move and got upset, arguing that it was tantamount to special treatment and a policy change that should have been OKed with the city prior to implementation. He even threatened to pull the city’s public health contract with the county.

Here is the problem: those 319,000 people who have signed up on the vaccine registry represent a small fraction of the county’s 2.6 million residents. The state doles out vaccines but local agencies are responsible for getting them into people’s arms. The state has now begun to prioritize hubs like the Fair Park mega-center, which last week received about 9,000 doses. There are now 77 hubs across the state, up from 28 last week. As reported by national outlets yesterday, there was no federal plan to help sort all this out. Local governments have to navigate local politics to get the job done. It isn’t always going smoothly.

After the mayor and the county judge’s dustup, a few council members reached out to Jenkins over the weekend to see if there was anything they could do to help. Councilman Chad West, who represents North Oak Cliff, said the judge needed help reaching Black and Latino residents in portions of the city that may have no idea about how to register or that they even need to. West even wrote a letter to Judge Jenkins voicing support of the county, which included the line, “I also apologize for the behavior of the Dallas Mayor and any Councilmember who has undermined your efforts to equitably distribute vaccinations and save lives.” The judge encouraged council members to work with faith leaders and community centers to notify more of the public.

“If you have to pound the pavement, do it,” West said Jenkins told him, which the judge verified. “Do what you can to get the word out that we need people to register. It’s the registration and lack thereof with people of color and people south of I-30 that’s really been the hang-up here.”

West said he and a friend went to the Bargin City Bazaar on Westmoreland to hand out fliers with information on how to sign up.

“That really opened my eyes,” West said. “I spoke with 200 people in passing, who were 99 percent Hispanic. … I would say about half of them had no idea they needed to register. We were telling them to get their relatives who were 65 or older signed up. They didn’t know anything about the different qualifications, but people were very interested. What was really disturbing, about two dozen people had no idea there even was a vaccine.”

Councilman Adam Bazaldua told a similar story about South Dallas, which he represents. “The judge told us that they go through the registrations that come in and try to prioritize by reaching back out to those in the highest impact ZIP codes first, to claim their appointments,” he said. “We just didn’t have a huge pool of people from those ZIP codes.”

Bazaldua’s District 7 includes seven of the 11 ZIPs the county first identified. He arranged for registration hubs to be set up at St. Phillip’s and T.R. Hoover Tech Center in 75215, Frazier Revitalization Inc. in 75210, and Owenwood Farm in 75228.

West and Bazaldua were joined by Councilwoman Paula Blackmon, who represents the White Rock Lake area and Northeast Dallas. She arranged for a registration hub in Casa View, located in 75228. Also on board were Councilmen Jaime Resendez in Pleasant Grove and southeast Dallas; Omar Narvaez in West Dallas; and Adam Medrano in portions of Love Field, Deep Ellum, and the Cedars.

They each arranged for volunteers to staff the hubs, but they needed protective equipment and laptops from the city. Five of the council members sent a memo to the city manager asking for it, while another two sent their own requests.

Mayor Johnson got wind of it and wrote his own memo to the city manager, ordering him to ignore their ask. Johnson said that state law and the city charter establishes him as the director during emergencies and that “individual City Councilmembers have no authority under the law or under the City Charter to dictate such actions in a state of emergency.” He wrote that the response “must be driven by data, not by politics, especially as my City Council colleagues have begun their re-election campaigns.”

Tristan Hallman, the mayor’s chief of policy and communications, said the mayor wanted to use data sets like access to the internet to determine where these registration hubs would have the most impact. Maybe one district only needs one and another needs four, he said. Hallman said the mayor’s desire is a registration outreach plan before agreeing to satellite sites across the city.

This incensed the council members, who accused the mayor of playing politics and slowing down their outreach efforts. They maintain that this is a rather low-tech ask: some laptops and N95 masks. They have volunteers and willing locales. Blackmon said part of setting these up quickly are so people can get their questions answered; if they didn’t even know they needed to register, she anticipates plenty of other questions.

“The mayor has no unilateral power over our city,” Bazaldua said. “He can cite the Texas Emergency Act all he wants, and I challenge him to challenge it (to the Texas Attorney General), but what I’m doing is providing digital resources and trying to help break the digital divide to help bring more equitable access to resources that are needed during this pandemic.”

(Editor’s note: Johnson last year asked the AG to rule, and the state ruled in the mayor’s favor: during a disaster declaration, the mayor is the chief authority.)

They also contend that using the county’s own priority ZIP codes is enough data. And anecdotal experiences, like West at the bazaar, show the importance of standing these up as soon as possible. They say the mayor is overcomplicating things; West says he’s prepared to show up at a grand opening for a small business with some fliers. Anything helps, he says.

“I just hate that it’s becoming this, OK, let’s look at a heat map before deciding when you just kind of know your gut feeling, you know your district,” Blackmon said. “If you’ve got people ready to work and get information out, then let’s do it.”

West says City Manager T.C. Broadnax helped secure 15 laptops from the county. A few council members said they were looking for donations outside of the city to set up their own hubs without dealing with Johnson. And, indeed, Jenkins says those registration hubs are launching despite the mayor’s concerns. Meanwhile, the judge is trying to stand up call centers, but public contracts take time to process; there are safeguards in place to make sure the county isn’t just paying someone’s friend.

Right now, demand is far outpacing supply, but local governments haven’t been able to even keep up with the logistics of getting people registered. Hopefully this is a sign that will soon change. But the reality remains: until more vaccines are actually in the community, it will be a challenge to get them to everyone in the city—especially in the parts of town that don’t have the infrastructure to make it easy to distribute. That’s something all of our elected leaders should agree on.

Below are the first registration drives. Others are planned for Owenwood Farm, T.R. Hoover, St. Phillip’s, and Frazier Revitalization. Another larger registration drive is being coordinated with Methodist Medical Center for the last weekend in January. Until then:

Thursday, 1/21, 3 p.m – 6 p.m., Hector P. Garcia Middle School, 700 E 8th Street  (Peter Piper Pizza/ Amigo Dental give-away event)
Friday, 1/22, 1 p.m – 4 p.m., Jerry’s Supermarket on W. Jefferson Blvd (partnering with Community Event)
Saturday , 1/23, 2 p.m. – 6 p.m., Bishop Barber & Babes, 514 W Jefferson Blvd, (partnering with Grand Opening celebration of new Tax Office, with food/music)

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