The city of Dallas is receiving 5,000 vaccine doses from the state next week, allowing fire department paramedics to vaccinate members of the public for the first time.
The city is also establishing its own vaccine registration sites to help sign up residents who may lack a computer or internet access, or who are just unaware that they need to register with the county. Prior to this, the state had only provided vaccine doses to the county, outside of some for EMTs and other first responders. Now city employees will take a more proactive role in the distribution of the vaccine as well as signing up residents for appointments.
There are now two city registration efforts working independently of one another: a more grassroots-style sign-up push led by individual council members and another approved by the mayor’s office that is being promoted as more intentional and targeted but may take more time, perhaps days, to set up and execute.
The bitter memos written by council members that led to these two initiatives have also triggered a specially called City Council meeting on Monday night. Council members Chad West, Adam Bazaldua, and Paula Blackmon requested the meeting and will “urge the mayor … to designate the city manager as the emergency management coordinator.” The council members also want clarity on the city’s plan to administer the vaccines to the public; they say they have not been briefed. The city says it will use the existing Dallas County registration database and prioritize residents based on recommendations from the state and federal governments. Dallas-Fire Rescue paramedics will administer the doses at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.
This is the latest conflict between the mayor and a bloc of council, but, rather ironically, the split this time might generate more resources for the public. We just had to walk through mud to get here.
The county believes signing up more residents for appointments is the key to an equitable distribution of the vaccine. But few people from underserved ZIP codes are signing up, in part because outreach has clearly failed. The 11 ZIP codes the county prioritized for appointments—which it chose by analyzing vulnerability to the coronavirus as well as nearby available healthcare services—accounted for only 27,000 of the 319,000 sign-ups through the online portal.
Most of the people packing the registry lived north of downtown, where healthcare services—and vaccine distribution centers—are more plentiful. Dallas County Health and Human Services’ operation at Fair Park was meant to reach the most vulnerable Dallasites, and it has received only about 10 percent of the entire county’s allotment of dosages. But supply is so low and demand is so high that it has been difficult for the county to meet its equity goals. Fair Park actually ran out of doses on Thursday afternoon. Next week it will receive just 9,000 more. The county would like those to go to people vulnerable to the coronavirus who live south of Interstate 30.
The county uses an algorithm to prioritize patients based on underlying health conditions, where the individual lives, and other factors. But it didn’t have the patient volume necessary to get those folks in the door at Fair Park. The mayor and at least six members of the Council then disagreed about how to go about registering these populations.
Those three council members, as well as southeast Dallas representative Jaime Resendez; West Dallas’ Omar Narvaez; and Adam Medrano of Love Field, Cedars, and Deep Ellum all looked at their districts and decided to get to work. I wrote about all this yesterday: they sent memos to the city manager asking for laptops and protective equipment, and the mayor disagreed with their approach, saying it lacked the data necessary to inform where these sites should go.
The city is currently operating under a disaster declaration, during which state law appoints the mayor as the director of the city’s emergency response. Staff technically report to him on matters related to COVID-19, though he has delegated much of the day-to-day decision-making to the Office of Emergency Management. That means the mayor gets to approve where city resources — everything from laptops to a box of pens — go.
On Friday morning, Councilman West said he was heading to Target to buy folding chairs for volunteers at a pop-up registration event in the parking lot of Jerry’s Supermarket, a Hispanic grocery store on Jefferson Boulevard. An hour before registration began, about 100 people had lined up outside. Close to 140 people registered at an event in the Hector P. Garcia Middle School gym on Thursday afternoon.
To West and some of his colleagues, this is proof enough that the city just needed to get going.
“It shows an incredible need for us to get the word out,” he said. “There’s no reason to wait a single day to throw us some laptops.”
The mayor agrees there should be registration sites, but he worries that the council members’ request is political. He ordered Rocky Vaz, the city’s director of emergency management, to pick locations based on “internet accessibility, computer availability, and the vulnerability of populations.” Those sites were identified by ZIP code Friday afternoon, using data from Parkland Clinical Center for Innovation and internet accessibility information from the U.S. Census to guide it. All but two—75150 and 75149, in Far East Dallas—were previously prioritized by the county and used by council members to select their locations.
A city spokeswoman says council members will need to request resources and identify locations in the agreed-upon ZIP codes, which also include portions of southern Dallas, Vickery Meadow, and Northwest Dallas.
In the meantime, City Manager T.C. Broadnax worked with the county to arrange laptops for the council members, going around the mayor and not using city resources.
The council members were frustrated with the mayor’s decision to block their request. They believe it would have costed them precious time that could have been spent registering the public. Their nimble pop-up registration centers are continuing while the city prepares to arrange for more formal settings.
Meanwhile, Monday’s specially called meeting is partly to air their grievances but also to urge the mayor to give the city manager more control over the city’s coronavirus outreach efforts.
It does not appear that the mayor will cede any of his power, nor is it clear that state law even allows him to. This is why he sought opinions from the Texas Attorney General near the beginning of the pandemic, to spell out how the law defines his role in an emergency should anyone question it. The mayor would prefer the City Council’s existing ad-hoc committee on coronavirus assistance to take up these matters, but the council members say they were nervous that their items would not make it onto an agenda. There is not currently a meeting set for that body, though that can change with a request from the chair.
The other items set for Monday: authorize the city manager to provide assistance with COVID-19 vaccination registration, which it appears was accomplished with Friday’s ZIP code announcement; discuss planning and coordination with the county; and require the mayor to provide routine updates on the coronavirus response so long as he serves as the emergency management director.
With the announcement of the vaccine allotment, council members say they also would like to better understand the distribution plan.
“We should be questioning the mayor on these decisions,” West said. “He is one of 15 on the Council.”
In a statement, the mayor said, “[T]he issues that they placed on the agenda have already been addressed or are spelled out clearly in state law. I encourage my colleagues to avail themselves of the city attorney, to attend the Ad Hoc Committee on COVID-19 Recovery and Assistance, or to pick up the phone and call if they have questions or concerns.”
Phone call or not, the special meeting is set for Monday at 7 p.m. You can watch it at this link.