Dallas County’s health department will begin prioritizing residents in predominately Black and Latino neighborhoods for the COVID-19 vaccine at Fair Park after early limited data showed many shots were going to residents in northern communities.
In a divided vote, commissioners shifted the county’s effort to vaccinate anyone who meets the state’s broader criteria — so long as they are registered to get a vaccine with the county and live in one of 10 ZIP codes identified on Tuesday. The county previously was focused on vaccinating residents 75 and older.
The ZIP codes are either completely or partly below Interstate 30 — which for decades has split the county by race and wealth. They were selected because they either rank high on the county’s coronavirus vulnerability index, which keeps track of how likely a resident is to catch COVID, or because of long-standing health inequities identified in a report released by the county and Parkland Health & Hospital system last year.
The shift in the county’s vaccination priorities was sponsored by Commissioner J.J. Koch, a Republican who represents northern Dallas County. It is the latest remaking of the county’s vaccination effort at Fair Park, which began on Jan. 11.
The decision came after Dallas County released vaccination data broken down by ZIP code that showed most shots went to residents from white and affluent neighborhoods such as Preston Hollow. The data did not include specific demographics such as race, gender and age.
While Koch said he hoped his order would make the process simpler, it is sure to inject more uncertainty into an already chaotic vaccination program that has been stymied by mixed messages and impromptu changes. The move also effectively cuts out residents in most of the county’s municipalities, which are donating personnel to help run the vaccine site.
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, who previously criticized the county’s handling of the vaccination site, declined to comment Tuesday.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who abstained from the 3-1 vote, said he anticipated the county next week would begin offering appointments to 27,000 residents from these ZIP codes who are registered for a vaccine. Assuming the county does not see a dramatic increase in vaccines from the state or additional residents from those neighborhoods register for appointments, it will take at least a month to inoculate them, Jenkins said.
The state is making vaccines available to any doctor or nurse in close contact with COVID-19 patients, other health care workers, and Texans 65 or older or anyone with a major health condition such as cancer, diabetes or kidney disease.
Thousands of residents have either already made appointments or have received an invitation to do so under existing criteria for this week and next. And during the debate, Jenkins suggested the reordering could violate the county’s contract with the state, which requires the site to vaccinate any Texas resident.
The state health department did not return a request for comment.
Commissioner Elba Garcia, a Democrat who represents Dallas County, voted against the proposed change, saying she trusted the health department to find the most equitable mix of residents to receive the shot.
“I don’t want to limit what the department can do,” she said.
The county should honor its existing appointments and invitations, Koch said in an interview after the meeting. He also suggested that Parkland and UT Southwestern Medical Center may vaccinate other high-needs populations. And he signaled an immediate openness to change the county’s prioritization — so long as all five members of the commissioners court had a chance to weigh in.
“What I presented was brutally simple,” Koch said. “It’s going to be inadequate in short order. Changes are going to have to be worked out, but they will be worked out with the five county commissioners — not just the county judge.”
Since the vaccines were approved by the federal government late last year, Koch has tangled with Jenkins over how to prioritize the limited supply. Previously, he suggested the county should focus on essential workers, such as grocery store clerks. Blacks and Latinos who live in poor neighborhoods are more likely to work these blue collar jobs and be susceptible to the worst COVID symptoms.
Since the coronavirus pandemic reached North Texas, Koch and fellow commissioners have expressed outrage over Jenkins acting unilaterally. As county judge, Jenkins has broad authority in cases of emergency. Last spring, the commissioners limited some of Jenkins’ power.
Tuesday’s debate echoed that frustration.
“Right now, what happened last week, we don’t own that,” Koch told Jenkins during one of the court’s most frenzied exchanges in months. “And we need to take ownership after what happened.”
The scene at Fair Park during its inaugural week spiraled out of control quickly, officials acknowledged. First, residents who did not meet the county’s initial criteria of being 75 or older made reservations for the vaccine using an unauthorized link to the registration system. After discovering the glitch, Jenkins and his team decided to open up the site to anyone over 75 regardless of an appointment.
In an effort to boost the number of Blacks and Latinos who would be vaccinated during the first week, Jenkins and county staff quietly reached out to faith leaders, state lawmakers and others with ties to those communities. News that an appointment was no longer needed at Fair Park quickly spread on social media, backfiring Jenkins’ plan to course correct.
The Fair Park location was initially selected in an effort to ensure Blacks and Latinos living in southern neighborhoods with limited access to pharmacies, grocery stores and health clinics would have a chance to get the vaccine.
Prior to Tuesday’s vote, the county was set to expand access to the vaccine to anyone over 65 with a serious medical condition.
Dr. Philip Huang, the county’s health director, told commissioners his team was weighing invitations for race and ethnicity, as well as geography. The ZIP codes Koch’s order now highlights were already being oversampled by the county in its most recent invitations, Huang said.
“I want to vaccinate everyone, but we have to make some decisions,” Huang said, defending the county’s decision to initially only vaccinate those 75 and older. “And we want to make the biggest impacts.”
Commissioner John Wiley Price, a Democrat who represents southern Dallas, said as long as the county focuses on those 75 and older, Black residents will be left behind.
“We’re not getting to 75,” Price said, referring to the lower life expectancy for Blacks.