DALLAS — Thursday evening, Mayor Eric Johnson changed his stance on vaccination registration hubs getting set up throughout the city to address digital disparities in Black and Latino communities. The decision, which he laid out in a second memo to Rocky Vaz, City of Dallas’ emergency management coordinator, came hours after community leaders stood together at the COVID-19 mega-site in South Dallas pleading for the mayor to help citizens, specifically those in poorer neighborhoods.
“Although COVID-19 vaccine distribution is currently Dallas County’s responsibility, it is important to me that we get as many people signed up to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as possible because these inoculations will save lives,” said Johnson. “It is also critical for our city government to make decisions that are based on data and facts rather than on politics or anyone’s gut feeling. That is what good government does, and it is what our community demands from us.”
In the couple of weeks that it has been open, nearly 17,000 people have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine shot at the city’s largest hub in Fair Park. But, statistics show that instead of those in communities hit the hardest by the novel coronavirus, residents in wealthier neighborhoods received the shot. And those numbers don’t sit well with city and community leaders and, of course, those still in desperate need of the vaccine.
“The first three days, you had some people that could get in,” said Tabitha Wheeler-Reagan, community activist. “After that, there has not been Black and brown in this line. The line has been 100 percent white.”
On Wednesday, one day after Mayor Johnson sent a memo to City Manager T.C. Broadnax about council members’ request to use city staff to mobilize vaccination registration hubs, Wheeler-Reagan, along with other community leaders, stood in the rain to voice their displeasure with his response.
“As the emergency management director for the City of Dallas under the Texas Disaster Act (Chapter 418 of the Texas Government Code) and under 14-B of the Dallas City Code, I am ordering that you disregard their request,” the memo read. “As you know, individual city council members have no authority under the law or under the city charter to dictate such actions in a state of emergency and their request should have been addressed to my office.”
Residents in South Dallas say they not only live in a food desert, but also a technology desert with lack of access to computers and Wi-Fi. As councilman over Fair Park and six other zip codes recognized as areas impacted the most by COVID-19, Adam Bazaldua joined with his colleagues to come up with a solution to that problem. In two memos sent to Broadnax, Bazaldua, and council members Chad West, Adam Medrano, Paula Blackmon, and Omar Narvaez petitioned that starting this week, vaccination registration hubs be established to reach those underserved communities.
“After speaking with Rocky Vaz yesterday, we understand that staff is capable of supplying laptops and PPE and staff has asked council members to supply volunteers to register individuals for the vaccinations and identify locations, dates and times for the registration “hubs”,” the memo stated. “We also ask that the city assist with marketing efforts regarding the registration hubs, but understand that the hardest-to-reach neighbors do not often monitor city communication channels.”
Unbothered by the rain, a small group of concerned citizens gathered at the entrance of Fair Park’s Tower Building. On the other side, a steady stream of drivers pulled into the parking lot as they waited to get next steps on where to go to receive the first dose of the vaccination shot. Wheeler-Reagan talking as loud as possible to drown out the rain, urged Mayor Johnson, who was not in attendance, to give residents the tools they need.
“If we can provide resources for the job fairs that the City of Dallas hosts every year, we can provide those same resources again for the sign-up,” she said. “So, it’s not rocket science. It’s not something we have to think a long time about. All we need is computers, able bodies and volunteers who say, ‘I am willing to sign you up, that I’m willing to go door-to-door [and] if necessary if you can’t get out, I can take your information through the door because you trust me’,” she said.
In his initial memo, Johnson alluded to the idea that the council members’ request was a political stunt noting that his “council colleagues have begun their re-election campaigns.” Those in attendance disagreed, insisting that needing resources to better serve communities was far from a political stunt. Spectrum News 1 reached out to Johnson but did not hear back from him prior to the publication of this story.
“I spend a lot of time walking these communities getting to know the neighborhoods for the type of work that I do,” said Dallas resident Venus Cobbs. “So, I know the issues and the challenges that they face with access and elderly people coming out to Fair Park. I know with the challenges they were experiencing, it wasn’t just as simple as plopping it right here at Fair Park and that you needed more efforts with getting to find out who’s in need, who may need some transportation assistance and for this to happen with the mayor, I was just so discouraged.”
Bazaldua also addressed the group urging Johnson to “lead or get out of the way.”
“I think since day one the mayor has been more focused with the power that he holds than what we can collectively do for the residents of Dallas and that’s just unfortunate and it’s not something that I will focus too much time on because I think it’s a waste of time,” he said.
At least 300, 000 people have signed up through the Department of Health and Human Services website to receive the vaccine. City officials say 9,000 more doses will be available in the county next week. But the battle over who will receive those shots rages on. It’s also unclear in which areas the city will set up the registration hubs.
“The hub locations shall be strategically placed based on data from Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation, the Community Health Needs Assessment, and City of Dallas Office of Equity data on internet accessibility, computer usage, and vulnerability,” Johnson wrote in his memo to Vaz.