By KENNETH PERKINS
The Dallas Examiner
“I just saw in the news that President Biden has authorized about 200 million doses of vaccines,” stated State Sen. Royce West, District 23 during the D23 Virtual Town Hall Meeting: A Conversation About the COVID Vaccines with special guest Dr. John Hellerstedt from the Texas Department of State Health Services on Jan. 27.
West hosted the gathering and included a number of area elected officials such as Judge Clay Jenkins, Duncanville Mayor Barry Gordon and DISD Trustee Joyce Foreman.
After introducing Hellerstedt as “the commissioner of health in the state of Texas,” West asked him for an overview of the vaccines – first globally and then breaking it down to a local level for Dallas County.
Hellerstedt began by explaining that the TDSHS and the Texas Department of Health and Human Services collaborate in order to service their communities – with no exception to COVID. He then discussed that the over 33,000 people in Texas, at least 400,000 in America and about 1 million globally that have died from COVID since it reached the United States almost a year ago.
He explained that, in the meantime, health care authorities have been diligently helping residents through treatment and prevention. Stating that the pandemic is something that they had not experienced and were not prepared for. Hellerstedt acknowledged that they have had challenges that they’ve had to work together to overcome.
The virtual town hall meeting continued on a cordial tone, focusing mainly on pandemic statistics, how vaccine signups were being conducted and the breakdown of who qualified to be on the priority list for the vaccine, why and when.
However, the conversation experienced a shift in tone when a participant asked why COVID vaccines were readily available at local retailers like CVS and Walgreens in the Northern Sector of Dallas but practically non-existent in the Southern Sector.
West put the changing tone in perspective.
When it comes to those becoming severely ill or succumbing to COVID-19, Black and Latino Americans top the list. Yet when it comes to being at the top of a more desirable list – that of receiving COVID vaccines – Black and Latino groups are squarely at the bottom, he explained.
West asked whether chains like CVS and Walgreens, or as addressed later in the meeting, grocery outlets like Kroger and Tom Thumb, had state or federal contracts to dispense the vaccines.
“If there is an individual drug store that is receiving vaccine from the department of state health services and then getting folks in the community who are in category 1A or 1B, that vaccine is being allocated to them by the department of state health services,” said Hellerstedt, who earlier had defined category 1A as medical front line workers and 1B residents and staffers in nursing homes and assistant living centers.
“On the national level, Walgreens and CVS have a direct contract with the federal government to receive vaccine and then administer it to residents of those long-term care facilities. If someone is seeing folks in the neighborhood where there is a pharmacy that is offering it that would be vaccine coming from the department of state health services.”
Hellerstedt’s answer set off a chain of amiable, but at times tense, back-and-forth questions and answers between the senator and the doctor that typifies the mounting frustration of not just the glacial pace of vaccination disbursements but also the exacerbation of what many at the meeting saw as a vast racial health inequity.
After one particular exchange on whether Walgreens and CVS gets part of the allocation from the federal government that is distributed by the state, West smiled broadly and said, “Dr. Hellerstadt, with all due respect, that’s not answering my question.”
Jenkins jumped in, asking Hellerstedt if the state was allocating vaccines to CVS and Walgreens and then those drug stores were choosing where to put it.
“And if so, what can be done for CVS to engage in equity in where they are putting vaccines?” Jenkins asked. “If yours is giving them an allotment of what they asked for, I don’t know the answer to this, and I’m not trying to put you on the spot, but if we are all about equity and transparency, how about they provide some equity and transparency about where they are putting it out there? Because what CVS is doing – they are not a mass vaccination hub, so they are not making it available to everyone. They are just making it available to people in their neighborhoods.”
Hellerstedt reminded everyone that the vaccine drive in general all over the country has been slower than expected, and also insisted that all races have had difficulty getting shots due to a limited supply.
“It appears this was intentionally done. This is a big miss. A major oversight,” Maxie Johnson, Dallas ISD Board of Trustee who represents a large portion of South Oak Cliff. “So what are we to do in the Southern Sector? What do I tell my constituents that have been asking for solutions and there is none?
There is no intentionality about it, Hellerstedt shot back.
“That’s not the way it works,” he said. “Why would I do that? Why would anybody in public health do that? Dr. Bass said there’s a dearth of providers in those areas. We’ve had to by necessity think in broad strokes in terms of what’s going to get the most people in Texas vaccinated? Part of the reason we picked criteria the way we did is that we know that those kinds of chronic disease that will qualify a person to get the vaccine are disproportionately represented in communities of color. So the idea is that we want to create that access.
“Once we get more vaccine, many of the problems will go away because there will be plenty. But that’s still weeks and months away. There’s no intention to leave anyone out. We want to be inclusive.”
The Dr. Bass to whom Hellerstedt was referring was Dr. Shari Bass, a pediatrician who recently moved to Dallas from Detroit. She talked about having spent a lot of time in south Dallas, particularly in Fair Park area and in Bonton Farms, which she described as “health care deserts.”
“I understand we are having these hubs where we are hoping that people will come and be vaccinated,” she said. “We are finding out that they are not because they don’t know about them, they don’t have Wi-Fi, they don’t use the same channels as individuals in north Dallas use, so they are unaware, horribly uninformed, are very concerned about what they might be putting in the vaccine, and finally, if we are able to get them signed up, they can’t come. They have no transportation. It’s unbelievable how neglected this area is.”
West acknowledged that other factors were driving the disparity as well, such as Black Americans’ deep distrust of the medical establishment due to past discriminatory treatment, the digital divide, transportation, and being uninformed on how to get the vaccine.
Bass talked about the possibility of having some kind of mobile unit come to those with difficulty getting around, to which West called “a great idea” and immediately began to ask Hellerstedt about it.
West also insisted that education is key, and that people need to be informed about not just the importance of the vaccine but how to get it.
“We need to do more outreach,” West concluded. “Get folks in line so as the vaccine are coming in they will be in line. The bottom line is this: If you’re not registered, you can’t get vaccinated. It’s as simple as that.”
Residents who qualify for a vaccine in 1A or 1B categories can register for an appointment at a state vaccine hub in Dallas County at https://www.dallascounty.org or 855-466-8639.