Dallas City Council tug-of-war exposes glitches in the system

Mayor Eric Johnson and Rocky Vaz, director of the Office of Emergency Management, participate in a Dallas City Council special called meeting, Jan. 25. – The Dallas Examiner screenshots courtesy of the city of Dallas video

 

By ROBYN H. JIMENEZ

The Dallas Examiner

 

COVID-19 vaccinations have been a subject of controversy and confusion even before the first vaccine was approved. Since local first responders began receiving vaccines Dec. 14, the subject matter does not seem to have become clearer, as local and national authorities discuss the distribution – who, when, where and how – of the vaccines.

Some residents concerns regarding the pace of the vaccinations began to overshadow the concern that many United States citizens – mainly in Black and Latino communities – had concerns regarding the safety of the vaccinations.

Residents in long-term care centers were supposed to be in line after first responders, as part of the 1A category. But while residents in long-tern care were still waiting, vaccination centers began offering vaccines to other residents 65 years old and older and those with chronic health conditions, beginning its 1B phase – for residents 75 years old and over or had certain chronic conditions – before completing the 1A phase.

At the same time, the question of equity began to echo across the city – concerned that the county’s online registration was not reaching residents that aren’t computer savvy or who don’t have access to the internet or transportation. Many who were able to register complained of not receiving any information in over two weeks. There were multiple reports from residents who saw crowds of mostly White individuals who seemed financially secure receiving vaccinations at the Fair Park location. Reportedly, impatient individuals began to arrive without appointments but still received shots.

To assist in the county’s efforts, Mayor Eric Johnson sent a letter Jan. 11 to the Texas Division of Emergency Management requesting direct vaccine allocations. Two days later, the effort was followed up with Johnson joining mayors of major cities across the United States who wrote to President-elect Joe Biden, asking him to work with them to directly distribute COVID-19 vaccines. Dallas received approval Jan. 22.

On Jan. 21, a plan was approved to set up vaccination registration hubs in underserved communities. The areas listed as the most vulnerable lived in the Southern and Eastern Dallas areas, according to Rocky Vaz, the city’s emergency management coordinator.

 

Shenanigans

“It started with the opening of the excellent Fair Park COVID-19 vaccination mega site. And it ended with a whole bunch of confusion about who could get a vaccine at the Fair Park mega site,” Johnson wrote in a public emailed statement.

He discussed the registration process and touted the number of first responders that were already vaccinated.

“While the information about this process was being shared publicly,” Johnson continued, naming a North Dallas council member for posted the wrong registration link to his district. “This link somehow allowed appointments to go to people who weren’t eligible or who would’ve had to wait longer if they had registered properly. It’s unclear how or why that kind of a glitch was possible and why the county didn’t have safeguards in place for it, but that is apparently what happened … in response, the county began quietly allowing walk-ups without appointments.”

Additionally, Johnson accused Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins of calling on certain state representatives and faith leaders to get the word out to people 75 years old and up to go to the Fair Park to get vaccinated without appointments, citing an article in a local major newspaper.

However, at one point, the same announcement was made public – which reportedly lasted two days.

“Over the past couple of weeks, it became evident there is much confusion around the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine and the role and responsibilities of each level of government. It is time we have an open and honest discussion that will bring clarity and understanding around vaccine distribution,” Council members Chad West, District 1; Adam Bazaldua, Disrict 7; and Paula Blackmon, District 9 wrote in a press release announcing a special called meeting.

On Sunday, the mayor released another public statement pointing to “some of the jockeying and noise” from Dallas City Council members regarding COVID-19 vaccination efforts.

“Tell your City Councilmember to put an end to the shenanigans, the misinformation-peddling press conferences, the vaccine-related campaign emails, the media sniping, and the political theater of scheduling completely unnecessary and distracting special-called meetings,” Johnson wrote.

 

Special meeting

The City Council held the special meeting Jan. 25 to discuss planning and coordination with Dallas County and other stakeholders for distribution of COVID-19 vaccines provided directly to the city of Dallas.

It began a bit rough, with back-and-forth discussion regarding the appropriateness of asking Johnson questions as the emergency management director and the possibility of losing time because he’s the mayor, not a staff member. The matter came to a vote and passed. Afterward, Johnson firmly reminded the members of the topic and that it was the only thing to be discussed during the meeting.

The first question came from Blackman, who asked Vaz – who is also the director of the Office of Emergency Management – for clarification as to “how we got here” in terms of the city offering vaccinations to residents.

“Early in January, Dallas started getting allocations directly to Dallas County Health and Human Services to provide vaccinations to the general public. And we, along with Dallas County, stood at the Fair Park site to do mass vaccinations,” Vaz began with a thorough review.

He went on to say that the county website for registrations launched in January, allowing people in the 1A category to sign up for vaccinations, stating that category was for first responders. He did not include the residents of nursing homes and assisted living centers, as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This may have been an oversight or it may explain why it took so long for those in long-term care facilities to be vaccinated – even as the 1B category was added to those allowed to register.

“As of now, we have over 400,000 people on the website waiting to get vaccines,” he continued.

Next, Councilman Adam McGough of District 10 asked what would be the best source to get information regarding vaccines and scheduling.

Vaz stated that the county website was the appropriate source. However, the city would soon have an accessible contact person to answer questions.

McGough also asked for clarification of the problem that they had met to resolve.

After no one answered, the mayor was asked to answer.

“I don’t know what we could accomplished here that we couldn’t accomplish at a COVID-19 Ad Hoc Committee Meeting or at a regularly scheduled council briefing, since they are scheduled every other week,” Johnson responded.

Bazaldua then suggested that there was a need for clarity, streamlined information and unity.

“We have constituents from all different council districts reaching out to their council people asking questions,” Bazaldua identified. “We have council people using social media to go on and talk about how everything’s in a cluster. We have the mayor that is speaking on his social media platforms about his displeasure with the county’s out rolling of things.”

The next question came from Councilman Lee Kleinman of District 11, who asked how many local first responders there were versus those who received vaccines. He seemed surprised to learn that though there were close to 5,000 first responders – and 5,000 vaccines were requested – the county was sent only 2,000 vaccines for health care workers. Fire department and frontline officers were next on the tier. The state did not include most law enforcement in the 1A category. Those who qualify to be included in the 1B category could now be vaccinated.

Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn of District 12 focused her questions on who created the vaccine plan and about any changes that the mayor may have made.

She then made requests regarding the vaccination plan. First, that distribution would be decided by risk factors rather than by geography and that 1B be divided into smaller categories – adding only those most critical to the priority list.

Two, she suggested developing an outreach plan using existing networking tools. She took issue with a statement that indicated a large group of “White wealthy” North Dallas people were getting vaccinated at Fair Park. She insisted that no one knew if the mostly White crowd was wealthy or where they were lived because many districts are “highly diverse.” Before her time ran out, she insisted that they simply used their networking tools to disseminate information.

 

Communication error

Councilman David Blewett of District 14 reiterated the confusion regarding testing and was concern that it would increase as the demand continues to increase.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think we’re all on the same page,” he stated. “Its pretty obvious we’re not. That’s why we’re here tonight, trying to get clarity, so that I can come away from today telling my people what the answer is about registration and distribution timelines. And I just don’t think we’re doing a very good job.

“You’re the professional … what could be done better?” he asked Vaz.

Vaz noted that the demand would be greater than the supply for a while. In the meantime, the information was clear about where to go register and the public should only go to the designated place at their appointed time. Some people may be waiting for months and many will become frustrated.

West talked about getting vaccine information through a press release, rather than internal sources or the director. He went on to say he felt the need to call the special meeting because he requested supplies to register some of his most vulnerable constituents, which was later denied by the mayor. Though, at that time he didn’t know when he would get a response, so he thought it was important to get together to discuss the registration process.

“My constituents don’t want to hear that we’re bickering. They don’t want to hear that there’s tweets going on…,” West stated before being interrupted by Johnson asking him focus on the distribution of the vaccines.

He then asked who would set the criteria for the priority list.

“We are working with our contracted health authority, with them looking at different data sets and applying different filters within the 1B criteria,” Vaz stated. “As you all aware that when they first rolled it out, they targeted 75 and above. And then starting this week they have exhausted their data base that are people 75 and above, so they’re going down in age … now this week they’re going 65 and above or people who have medical conditions. And as I indicated earlier, the communication that I’ll send out tomorrow I will list the criteria, the filters and the processes they are using to prioritize that list that we are getting to start scheduling appointments.”

Councilman Adam Medrano of District 2 contributed to the conversation by requesting that the mayor’s COVID committee be on each briefing to answer questions as they come in.

Councilman Casey Thomas of District 3, the co-chairman for the COVID-19 Ad Hoc Committee, made clarification reading of the criteria for 1B classification. He also stated that they, as city leaders, needed to be intentional about making sure that citizens know the criteria as well. He followed with a request that the City Council receive weekly updates on changes to the criteria.

Afterward, Councilman Omar Narvaez of District 6 shared his concerns about getting the message out regarding vaccinations and access to registration. He shared a heartfelt story about helping his mother get registered in her city, concerned about local citizens that might not have anyone to help. He also stated that he wanted better communication.

Bazaldua questioned Johnson about the order in which information was disseminated when the city was approved to receive direct allocations of the vaccine. He then took issue with the mayor informing the media and the City Council simultaneously, stating, “That’s not how we do business in the city of Dallas.”

“Actually it happens quite frequently,” Johnson countered. The two went back and forth briefly. Then Bazaldua continued by asking the mayor if he thought it would be beneficial to have a communication with county health officials who were already distributing vaccines in the city.

“If the intent is to get information, I’m happy to provide it. If it’s to provide a show, I can’t help you with that,” the mayor responded.

Bazaldua sounded frustrated as he replied.

“Its not a show. I asked you a question,” he said. “Are you going to answer it?”

Johnson agreed to answer but stated it sound like a show to him. In what appeared to be an attempt to answer the question, he repeated his answer to the first question. But after another round of the same thing, Bazaldua stated, “I guess you’re going to ignore the question.”

 

Clarification

Councilman Tennell Atkins of District 8 went next and asked Vaz about when and how the city would begin offering vaccines. Vaz stated the city was expected to receive them Monday and expected the first appointments to start Thursday.

Atkins also asked about the marketing plan being used to educate citizens regarding the vaccines, as well as transportation. Catherin Cuellar, director of communications for the City of Dallas Office of Communication, Outreach and Marketing, reiterated using the county website, http://www.dallascityhall.com/covid19, and the bilingual automated phone number, 216-670-INFO (4636). She later stated that anyone could register and the analytics would place residents in order of priority.

Vaz said there was no direct transportation system. However, they offered a golf cart shuttle to pick up individuals with ambulatory issues from city buses and trains. Bret Stidham later stated that his department had been working on transportation that morning and would share it with Vaz when it is finalized.

Vaz also stated that the city was expecting another 5,000 vaccines next week. And to continue to get more, the city needed to prove that they could do the job well. He admitted there were some details that they were unsure about due to a change in the presidential administration.

During the second round, Thomas’s question uncovered that there may not be a way for the county to provide appointment information to residents who use a landline to register. The coordinator did, however, state that they would look into it.

Councilwoman Carolyn Arnold – who joined late due to technical issues – informed Johnson that Parkland Health Systems had identified the ZIP codes 75210, 75215, 75216, 75217 and 75241 as the city’s most at-risk communities. She then asked what consideration was given to the most at-risk communities.

Johnson stated that he felt those communities – along with issues regarding transportation, connectivity, etc. – should be considered when setting priority, but not by himself or the City Council. He stated those decisions should be left to the experts like Vaz.

Vaz stated that he was aware of the study and had given the information to the county. He anticipated getting more information on the filters that the county is using and would update the City Council.

Arnold also asked about residents like one of her constituents’ husband who is in his 90s and bed-ridden and his caregiver, who is not a nurse. Vaz said the city didn’t have a plan to do home-based vaccinations at this time, but he would pose the question to the health authority, the county and the state.

 

In conclusion …

After three rounds of questions, Johnson made his closing statement.

“I think I heard a lot of good questions today. That’s for sure,” he said. “And I think I heard a lot of good ideas, too. I don’t have any disagreement with anybody that we heard some good information today … But where I have to respectfully disagree with some on my colleagues on this Council is that we needed this meeting tonight to do this. And I say that because there’s absolutely nothing about the way this disaster is being managed or handled that has been unlike how we’ve approached any other, in terms of, nothing is precluded anyone on this council from asking a questions of …”

Bazaldua interrupted him.

“How is this germane? I haven’t even heard you say the word ‘germane,’ I mean ‘vaccine,’” he insisted.

As Johnson asked Bazaldua to allow him to finish, Bazaldua insisted that each of them had been interrupted with a reminder to keep their point germane.

“I just want to make sure we’re staying on topic,” Bazaldua insisted.

“I appreciate that,” Johnson replied amiably as he briefly repeated his statement before continuing. “… The issue was raised today about whether or not we are coordinating or communicating as well as we should in connection with how we are distributing the vaccine and how we are approaching this disaster. What I’m suggesting to you is that an understanding of how this roll of emergency management works will benefit everyone. Because I think there is more being put into this title than people understand to be the case.

He explained that his position doesn’t replace anyone else’s position and it doesn’t turn him into the city staff. He doesn’t handle how vaccines are rolled out, where cites are located or primary communication. He said he also does not handle when the ad hoc committee meets. As director, he may make final decisions or resolve conflicts.

He further stated that the city is only supplementing the county’s effort. The county is still the main source behind the vaccination effort.

Last, he reassured the City Council that the confusion across the city mirrors the confusion experienced across the country, which is caused primarily by the high demands and low supplies.

“What everyone needs to keep in mind … is use the tools that we have and ask the question of the resources that we have. I, for one, have never been asked by any one of you that spoke up today, these questions.”

The session came to an end as Johnson was interrupted one more time.

 

Sidebar

 

Special Called City Council agenda items

The Dallas City Council voted on three agenda items during the special meeting.

Item 1: Authorize the city manager to provide assistance with COVID-19 vaccination registration, including, but not limited to, setting up vaccination registration centers to ensure equitable distribution of the vaccinations and providing laptops and PPE for vaccination registration.

The item passed 10-5.

Item 2: Consideration of the role of the emergency management coordinator in a state of disaster and urge the mayor, as the emergency management director, to designate the city manager as the emergency management coordinator.

After almost 25 minutes of discussion, Adam Bazaldua withdrew his second of the motion, leaving them waiting on another member to second the motion, until Chad West of District 1 withdrew his motion.

Item 3: Consideration of placing an item on each briefing agenda during the State or Local Disaster to receive updates from the mayor, as the emergency management director.

The item failed with a 4-10 vote and one absent.

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