Man receiving the COVID-19 vaccine
A D.C. resident receives COVID-19 vaccine. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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“D.C. needs more vaccine.” This message is everywhere—from weekly vaccine alerts to the DC Health director’s mask. So when the public learned that Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration wasn’t interested in support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which presumably comes with more doses, many were pissed.      

“Today’s stiff drink rating: [three cocktail glass emojis]” tweeted At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman. “FEMA helps [with] reaching high risk residents. Why not apply?” Others online agreed with her. 

Turns out, it’s not that simple. 

To back up, DC Health told the Council it was not interested in a FEMA vaccine site during an afternoon conference call on Wednesday. “We have several high-capacity sites throughout the District. So we’ve been running high-capacity sites at the Convention Center, high capacity sites at the Entertainment & Sports Arena,” said DC Health’s emergency response director, Patrick Ashley, when asked if they made a request to FEMA for a site. “To be very candid, we don’t need FEMA’s help running these sites. We actually just need more vaccine.” 

Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George asked for clarification: Did D.C. not apply for federally supported community vaccination centers? They offer more supply, she assured. DC Health’s vaccine czar, Dr. Ankoor Shah, responded: “We are opting into every opportunity where we can get more supply.” D.C. opted into federal partnerships involving health centers and pharmacies, he assured. Ashley added: “The FEMA partnership does not get us more doses. If and when that happens, we will reevaluate … As I said, right now it’s more of a shortage of vaccine. We have plenty of vaccinators in the District and so that’s not very helpful to us.”      

But the FEMA website says “Vaccines for [community vaccination] centers are provided to the states above and beyond the regular allocations.” 

So what is going on?   

FEMA helps states and jurisdictions establish or expand vaccine sites in multiple ways, but not every way comes with increased supply. According to a Feb. 26 press release, FEMA has supported hundreds of sites nationwide through federal personnel, funding, and equipment. The Biden Administration, for example, is supporting 1,200 National Guard vaccinators across 43 states and territories. A FEMA spokesperson tells City Paper that the vaccines used at these sites are not separate from a state or jurisdiction’s own allocation. Meaning the District’s weekly supply of doses would not increase if local officials expressed interest in this type of FEMA support. 

There is another program FEMA is piloting that comes with extra doses, but DC Health cannot just apply. In fact, a DC Health spokesperson says the agency asked about participating in this program but FEMA indicated the city would be ineligible. 

“FEMA is also partnering with state governments to launch federal pilot community vaccination centers (CVCs). This is not an opt-in program,” the FEMA spokesperson says via email. 

The FEMA spokesperson says the process for selecting where to establish these pilot community vaccination centers is based on data analysis of CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index and other Census data, along with input from state and local partners. (Another FEMA press release says the feds consider Census population data to ensure “equitable distribution of vaccines.”) The spokesperson says the vaccine for these centers is provided “above and beyond” the regular allocations. 

In the Feb. 26 press release, the federal government announced 18 pilot community vaccination centers that could administer a total of 61,000 shots per day at full capacity. Cities like Oakland, Houston, Brooklyn, Rochester, Chicago, and Philadelphia were selected. Some of these federally run sites had the capacity to administer 6,000 individuals a day. 

Why wasn’t D.C. selected? Was there a population cutoff, as Alabama’s state health officer suggested? The FEMA spokesperson did not respond to this reporter’s follow-up questions regarding eligibility. Instead, they said D.C., as the rest of the nation, has more vaccines available to them than they did a month ago, and more vaccines are on the way. 

“It is not always the best option to request a FEMA Pilot CVC,” the spokesperson says. “The relatively small number of FEMA Pilot sites are being positioned where necessary to provide greater equity to underserved populations where the city or state need the added staffing and support. All indications from Washington, D.C. is that they seek more vaccines. They are coming.” 

The FEMA and DC Health spokespeople independently confirm that they are in regular dialogue with one another. The FEMA spokesperson says assistance includes funding, technical advice, shared lessons learned, and planning. The DC Health spokesperson says the agency did express interest in a pilot community vaccination center. 

“As part of FEMA’s response to the District’s request for an early vaccination center, as well as for the assistance with the vaccination of federal employees, FEMA indicated D.C. would not be eligible to participate in the Federal Pilot Community Vaccination Center program or eligible to receive additional doses of much needed vaccine,” the DC Health spokesperson says.  

Chris Rodriguez, director of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, said at a Thursday press conference that D.C. asked on Wednesday if it was eligible and was told the city still wasn’t.

In mid-February, Bowser, along with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, requested that the federal government directly supply and distribute doses to essential federal workforces, including WMATA. This would be over 30,000 regional workers. But that request was denied.

This week’s supply is more than last week’s. DC Health is receiving 27,140 doses: 14,400 doses are being directed to, 5,610 doses to hospitals and health centers, and 7,130 doses for special initiatives (including a new partnership with CVS, where a total of three pharmacies in Wards 5 and 7 will vaccinate individuals who pre-register through the government portal). Last week, DC Health did not receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, so it received a smaller allocation, at 24,068 doses. The agency does not expect to receive this vaccine on a weekly basis as it does with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. 

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