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Here’s why D.C. was excluded from a FEMA vaccine program: It’s for big states

James Campbell, 65, receives a dose of the coronavirus vaccine at Community of Hope health clinic in Southeast Washington. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The District of Columbia will not receive extra vaccine doses or assistance setting up a mass vaccination site from the federal government, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Friday, because the agency is targeting the most populous states in setting up clinics in high poverty neighborhoods.

FEMA acting administrator Robert J. Fenton Jr. acknowledged on a call with reporters Friday that the District has “high social vulnerability,” the measure of race and poverty that the agency has used to select sites that need mass vaccination clinics.

But Fenton said FEMA’s selection process for the 21 sites it has set up so far, and the additional 15 it plans to open, was based not just on its “social vulnerability index” but on population.

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The agency started with the most populous states, opening sites in California, then Texas and Florida, and will continue to proceed by state size, Fenton said. That means the District — with a population smaller than all but two states — will not get this federal assistance.

The city government has struggled to bridge wide disparities in the vaccination rates between wealthy, more-White areas and low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods that were hit hardest by the virus. According to the most recent city data, the rate of vaccinations in affluent Ward 3 is more than twice the rate of Wards 7 and 8, which are mostly Black and the poorest parts of the city.

FEMA’s community vaccination clinics are staffed by federal workers and come with an extra 3,000 to 6,000 doses of vaccine per day, on top of the doses already allocated by the federal government to each state on a per capita basis.

The federal agency is also providing logistical support, without any extra vaccine, to a far larger number of vaccination sites across the country.

“We worked with states in reverse order of population. So the District of Columbia, while on a per-population basis has high social vulnerability, it didn’t have the population numbers of Los Angeles within California or Arlington within Texas,” Fenton said.

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Arlington, a Dallas suburb that received a FEMA site, has a population of less than 400,000, compared with more than 700,000 in the District. Other cities with sites up and running include Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Greensboro, N.C. Virginia officials said Friday that Norfolk would get a clinic, too.

A D.C. health department leader caused concern among some city lawmakers on Wednesday when he said the local government did not want such a FEMA site in the District.

The next day, emergency management director Christopher Rodriguez said the District had requested one of the community vaccination clinics but was told the city did not qualify for this federal help.

FEMA has also rejected requests from the District and the governors of Maryland and Virginia to help vaccinate the massive essential federal workforce in the capital region, including transit workers and postal workers.

D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), who urged the health department during Wednesday’s meeting to seek one of the clinics, criticized FEMA’s decision on Friday.

“The District should definitely receive a mass vaccination site,” she said in an email. “We have communities that are very vulnerable, a low vaccination rate among our residents, and entire wards that have largely been left behind in vaccine distribution.”

George called the decision to prioritize states with large populations “part of a broader pattern of D.C. not being treated equitably,” which city officials said after the federal government refused to send the District extra vaccine doses to accommodate the large number of workers from elsewhere.

“Early on we were not given enough vaccines for our health workers, then the federal government denied our request to vaccinate its essential federal workers,” George said. “And now FEMA is using a flawed metric to exclude us from this program.”

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