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Dallas Mayor On Vaccine Rollout Plans For Residents

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn our attention back to the coronavirus pandemic and the efforts to control it. You've probably heard a lot about people who are hesitant to get the vaccine, but most people seem to want it. So now we're going to focus on an issue that's caused a lot of tension in some places - who gets vaccinated, in what order, and why?

President Biden has pledged to distribute 100 million vaccines during his first 100 days in office. Biden's plan prioritizes getting vaccines to those who are most at risk, including certain racial and ethnic groups. One city trying to make that happen in Dallas, Texas, where, as in many places, Black and Latino communities have been hit hardest by the coronavirus, but they're not necessarily getting the same share of vaccines. So how to address that? We've called the mayor of Dallas, Eric Johnson, to talk about this.

Mr. Mayor, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

ERIC JOHNSON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So let's just set the table here. And I do want to say again that this - Dallas is not the only place dealing with this. But as I understand it, the city had initially set up a large vaccination site in an area of Dallas called Fair Park that's in the southern part of the city, where a lot of Black and Latino residents live. The goal was to make it easier to get vaccines to the communities that had had the most infections and the most fatalities. But the reports are that it was mostly white Dallas residents who initially got the shots. Why do you think that is?

JOHNSON: Well, I think that the coronavirus pandemic has not created inequities in our society. It's exposed them, and it's exacerbated by them. And so, you know, we have a situation where I think, like so many things, people of color, lower-income folks, have been disadvantaged in this vaccine process because of the lack of access to the Internet in some cases, mobility issues in some cases, and unfortunately, to some degree, the lack of political access and connections because in some cases we've seen here in Dallas, when things have broken down, elected officials have resorted to their networks. And if you're not connected to some folks through these networks, then you may not have gotten the information that you needed. And those are things we have to address, but they are all driven by the inequities that already existed.

MARTIN: So, that being said, but you still are in a position right now of deciding who gets the vaccines that are available, so I want to talk about how that's been going. So this past week, several Dallas City Council members put together a plan to set up registration hubs for the COVID-19 vaccines. These are designed so that anybody can come and register even if they don't have access to high-speed Internet. You denied that plan, but then you proposed a similar one. What's the difference? And what's behind the decision?

JOHNSON: That's a great question. I want to clarify that because the issue was never about whether or not we should have the vaccine registration hub. We absolutely should do something to help the county. It is the county's responsibility, not the city's, to register folks, but the city has been going above and beyond to help the county throughout this pandemic and doing things that really are the county's responsibility but impact our residents. We want to help.

What I wanted to make sure happened was that those vaccine registration sites were placed where they were most needed and not where the city council member had the most influence with the city manager, or that politics went into - taking into account politics to determine where a site went was not what we need right now. And what we absolutely have to do is to make sure where the vaccine is most needed because the populations are most vulnerable, that's where it needs to go. And registration needs to happen in the places that are being the most difficult to reach.

MARTIN: I am interested in whether you're getting resistance from people who - you know, who want the vaccine. The fact is, we've focused a lot on the people who are hesitant, but the reality of it is that surveys show that 75% of people do want it. And you can imagine there's a lot of anxiety. Like, is it - do the teachers get it first - you know, the frontline health workers? What - which essential workers get access to it, et cetera, et cetera? And there's just a lot of feelings about it, and I'm just trying to understand, like, what's your North Star in this? How do you - how are you sort of deciding how to think about this? And how are you encouraging your constituents to think about this?

JOHNSON: We have so many more people who are registered than we actually have vaccines coming in that we have - I think we have over 340,000 people registered, and we're getting 5,000 vaccines a week, if we're lucky, at the city of Dallas and 10,000 a week at the county. It's just nowhere near enough. The megasite was closed on Friday because we're out of vaccines. We didn't vaccinate a single person in Dallas on Friday in Dallas County. So there you have it. I mean, that's really what's driving this whole thing.

So I definitely believe communities of color should be prioritized, and underserved communities should be prioritized. But we have to make sure that politics isn't determining where these things go because if that is the case, the communities of color and the underserved will always come out on the short end of the stick because by definition, they're the least connected and the least powerful. So these are all working together to make things more difficult. But we have to solve it.

MARTIN: That was Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for talking with us. And I do hope we'll talk again.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.