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State Orders Dallas County to Change Vaccine Plan That Prioritized Certain Zip Codes

County Judge Clay Jenkins (D) faced pushback from both sides of the aisle on Wednesday at an emergency meeting of the Dallas County Commissioners Court in which commissioners rescinded a court order they had passed that prioritized a handful of zip codes for COVID-19 vaccination. 

The commissioners made the move after receiving a communication from the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) threatening to pare back the county’s vaccine allowance if the county did not rescind the order.

The nullified court order prioritized residents in 11 zip codes for vaccination, a policy that was designed to support those in “disadvantaged” communities without making race the basis for distributing the vaccine.

Jenkins argued that effectively prioritizing less vulnerable people for vaccination simply because they live in a certain zip code is imprudent, but Commissioner J.J. Koch (R-Pct. 2) has been trying to move the county away from a vaccine distribution policy that prioritizes certain racial groups.

Earlier this week, Commissioner Theresa Daniel (D-Pct. 1), Koch, and Commissioner John Wiley Price (D-Pct. 3) formed a majority to pass the now-rescinded ordinance while Commissioner Elba Garcia (D-Pct. 4) abstained. 

Jenkins voted no — then he got the state involved. The next day, he authored a letter to DSHS Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt. He explained the county’s decision and asked for direction.

“This is a departure from our practice of using DSHS guidance to prioritize the most vulnerable in our community in an equitable way,” Jenkins wrote. “Please let me know if this order is acceptable to you and DSHS and in keeping with our contract.”

In an email on Wednesday afternoon to Dr. Philip Huong, Dallas County’s chief health official, DSHS Associate Commissioner Imelda Garcia called the county’s plan “not acceptable.”

“It has come to my attention that the Dallas County [Commissioners] Court has voted to limit access to COVID-19 vaccines to only residents of select ZIP codes within the county,” Garcia said in the email, which was forwarded to the commissioners court.

Garcia reiterated the expectations of Dallas County as a “hub provider,” including a requirement to vaccinate any resident of Texas, not just residents of the county, as well as comply with the state’s tiered vaccination plan.

“While we ask hub providers to ensure [the] vaccine reaches the hardest hit areas and populations, solely vaccinating people who live in those areas is not in line with the agreement to be a hub provider,” Garcia instructed.

Garcia warned that if the county did not change its vaccine distribution plan, the state would reduce the number of vaccines allocated to the county and remove its status as a hub provider. She then told the county to get back with her by 8:00 a.m. on Thursday, prompting commissioners to convene in an emergency meeting.

Jenkins faced bipartisan backlash at the meeting from commissioners who were irked by his summary of events and who believe his public statements on vaccine distribution have been insincere.

Believing Jenkins’ interactions with the state were “disingenuous,” Koch preferred to amend the order than to repeal it, specifying that vaccines would still be available to those outside the prioritized zip codes. However, Jenkins and other commissioners were anxious that leaving the zip code language on the books would still run afoul of the state’s mandates.

Daniel confronted Jenkins, believing he had mischaracterized the intent of the rescinded court order.

“Okay, judge, first of all, I really resent that you’re saying that I want to do harm to anybody, and so I resent that you are putting those words in my mouth. My number one priority is to get [vaccines] to … residents of Texas,” Daniel said. 

“If we can prioritize it because we do not have a lot of vaccines, so that those who are more vulnerable would be given a priority, then that seems to make some sense in an area that has 4.3 million people.”

Commissioner Elba Garcia (D-Pct. 4) stated that the court should align itself with DSHS mandates by prioritizing racial minority communities but not “to the exclusion of other vulnerable populations that are out there.”

Koch and Daniel agreed to rescinding the order on the condition that the commissioners court would meet later in the week to develop a plan that was “transparent and accountable.”

Price was the only member who did not vote in favor of rescinding the ordinance.

“I don’t like having my arm twisted,” Price said as he abstained from the vote.

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