The plan to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to as many as 2,000 people a day at Fair Park next week began with a text message.
Dallas City Council member Paula Blackmon said she was watching the Netflix show Bridgerton around 8 p.m. Monday when Justin Henry, president of the Dallas ISD board of trustees, wished her a happy New Year and asked a question.
“Who selects these locations?” the text read.
Henry sent her a tweet with a screenshot of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution map that showed facilities in Dallas County approved to distribute the vaccine. More than two dozen were sprinkled around the northern part of Dallas.
Besides one family clinic in Pleasant Grove, no vaccine distribution sites were pictured in south and southeast Dallas, east and southeast Oak Cliff and Rochester Park. The tweet was posted by Chris Dowdy, vice president of academic affairs at Paul Quinn College in the southern part of the city.
“Vaccination sites in Dallas County. See any patterns? I’ll wait,” Dowdy wrote last Monday.
Blackmon, who represents east Dallas and White Rock Lake, said she saw the map and thought: “Whoa, not good.”
She said she shared Henry’s text with council members Adam Bazaldua, who represents East and South Dallas, and Jaime Resendez, who represents Southeast Dallas and Pleasant Grove.
A string of texts and phone calls from the council members followed, looping in other city and county officials about the disparity.
On Thursday, the fairground area in South Dallas was chosen as the county’s first large-scale site to administer thousands of shots to protect people against the coronavirus, focusing on the most vulnerable residents. The city owns the grounds and the county is overseeing the vaccination process.
“It was a shining example of what we’ve seen through this pandemic and speaks to the inequities of our city,” said Bazaldua, which district includes Fair Park. “We knew we had an opportunity with real data right now to make sure that we addressed it.”
The announcement of the mega site comes as the rollout of vaccines has hit the second month. At the same time, widespread concerns persist. One is over how slowly the distribution is occurring. The other is about how communities primarily populated by people of color lack access to clinics, pharmacies and other places allowed to administer the vaccines.
Texas has received about 1.4 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the state health department.
The state announced Thursday that it was planning to prioritize shipping doses to large providers that can give at least 100,000 shots a week.
Dallas County had nearly 211,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday — half were from the city alone. County data showed Black and Latino residents made up about 40% of the reported COVID-19 cases and the race and ethnicity of another 40% weren’t reported.
People living in Dallas’ 75217 zip code, which encompasses parts of southeast Dallas and Pleasant Grove, were among the hardest hit by the virus, with cumulative COVID cases ranging from about 6,600 to more than 8,200.
According to the most recent Census bureau estimates in 2018, 69% of the residents in the zip code are Latino and about 25% are Black.
Officials hope to have the Fair Park site up and running as early as Monday. Vaccines will be available by appointment only to those who register online. And even then, it’s currently only available to front-line health care workers; those 65 and older; or anyone 16 and over who has a higher risk of infection because of cancer, diabetes, kidney disease or pregnancy.
It’s still unclear when it will be made available to the general public.
Fair Park’s location
Blackmon, Bazaldua and Resendez began brainstorming large sites in the area that could host vaccinations and that people can reach via public transit. Forester Field and Juanita J. Craft Recreation Center also came up in the discussion along with Fair Park.
The council members looped in Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax and others as discussions continued to Tuesday, when Fair Park First, the non-profit that manages the fairgrounds, was called to gauge interest in hosting the mega vaccination site. Jenkins’ chief of staff confirmed Blackmon contacted them about the map’s disparities.
Blackmon said if the federal government decides to take over distributing vaccines, the Fair Park site could be used as an option to receive the medication directly once the general public is allowed to get the vaccine.
“Government should work for people and when all levels of government come together with that in mind, it can work fast and you can accomplish things in three or four days,” she said. “But it takes everyone literally having to understand what the direction is, where we’re going and the intent.”
Rocky Vaz, Dallas’ emergency management director, said that the city on Tuesday used up its first 2,000 doses to vaccinate paramedics, firefighters, police officers and city marshals. Another 150 fire department staff also received their first doses through Parkland Memorial Hospital and Dallas County. The city vaccinations began Dec. 29.
The city will receive another 2,000 doses so staff can get their second shots starting Jan. 25, but it’s not yet clear when it will receive more vaccines for another round of employees. The city employs more than 5,000 first responders.
Vaz said the city plans to have police officers work security at the fairgrounds while mass vaccinations are occurring and that fire department staff will aid in administering shots to patients.
He said Fair Park was an ideal spot to do the vaccinations because of its sprawling space and proximity to public transportation.
“We wanted people to have the ability to come to a neighborhood vaccination site either by light rail, bus, car or by walking,” Vaz said. “When we were looking at other sites, we were thinking of drive-through options but realized there was an equity issue. Not everyone has a car and not everyone can drive themselves.”
Mayor gets vaccine
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson is among those who have received one of the required two shots of the COVID-19 vaccine. He got his first dose at UT Southwestern Medical Center on Thursday, saying he was eligible because of an underlying medical condition. He hasn’t disclosed what that is and a mayor’s office spokesman declined to elaborate.
Johnson, 45, said he was urging everyone to get the vaccine as soon as they are eligible. He also said he was concerned about the results from a recently released survey from the Texas A&M University School of Public Health. It found that 41% of Black people who participated said they were more likely to skip getting the vaccine. The survey of 5,000 people found their concerns ranged from affordability and lack of health insurance to worries over its safety.
Johnson said he understood the concerns expressed by people of color, citing experiments done on Black Americans in the past.
For example, in the 1930s, medical workers in Alabama tracked hundreds of Black men infected with syphilis and withheld medication so they could study how the sexually transmitted disease affected them . The medical workers gave the men pills to make them think they were being medicated, but they really weren’t.
The U.S. government-sanctioned experiment went on until it was uncovered in the 1970s.
“There are people and generations who remember that very vividly,” Johnson said, “and that has been passed along as a cultural legacy to many of us.”