Sherri Mixon is used to the fight.
A South Dallas native, she has fought for better health care, housing and food in her often neglected part of the city.
Now, she is fighting to get her neighbors registered for the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I can’t wait,” Mixon said. “People’s lives are at stake.”
Mixon is executive director of the nonprofit T.R. Hoover Community Development Corp., which serves people in need from its community center. With the help of a few volunteers armed with iPads tethered to an unreliable internet connection, Mixon this week transformed her drive-through food pantry into a makeshift registration hub. Together they signed up dozens of South Dallas residents to get the vaccine.
The process of joining Dallas County’s waiting list for vaccinations — either online or by phone — has proved difficult to navigate for many of the city’s most vulnerable.
Mixon, 51, is one of several Black community organizers who pushed the city government earlier this month to step up its involvement in enrolling Black and Hispanic residents. Early and limited data indicated local officials were falling short of their vaccine equity goal.
More recent, partly complete data from the state also illustrates wide racial and ethnic gaps in vaccinations. White residents are 28% of Dallas County’s population but so far make up 43% of the people inoculated. (About a third who have been vaccinated have not shared their race.)
“This isn’t us placing the blame,” Mixon said. “This is us saying we have to do a little more and in a different way.”
The vaccination gap between white city residents and everyone else is a new — but familiar — inequity. To reverse the trend, city and county officials turned their attention to public registration drives in community centers.
But political drama ensued. Early efforts to diversify the county’s registration list — which multiple inoculation hubs rely on — appeared not to work, according to new data first reported by The Dallas Morning News.
“We let bureaucracy take hold when we need action,” Mixon said, standing outside her organization’s modest community center on Bexar Street. She helped direct traffic and volunteers bouncing between cars.
Now, elected officials from all corners of the county are mounting a full-court press. Leaders are urging everyone to sign up for the vaccine — even if they’re not in one of the current priority groups. A new call center, staffed by more people, will accommodate people who speak both English and Spanish. Other languages may be added if there is demand. And new software approved by the county will make it easier to register online and manage appointments. The city is also providing staff people and equipment to help set up pop-up registration hubs.
‘Not a new fight’
Even before the first car pulled into the community center’s parking lot Tuesday morning to pick up a bag of fresh vegetables, canned goods and bread, Mixon and her volunteers were trying to solve all the problems their community might face in getting the shot.
They set up a generic email account that the center will monitor for people who don’t have an email address. Volunteers will follow up with those people by phone.
To help overcome transportation issues, they say, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson and City Council member Adam Bazaldua, who represents the neighborhood, need to pressure DART to provide vouchers. They’ll ask churches and schools in North Dallas to lend vans.
In a perfect world, officials could administer the shots at the center.
“This is a life-saving event,” Mixon said. “It’s going to take everyone.”
While the rate of reported COVID-19 cases in the 75215 ZIP code, where the Hoover community center is located, is among the lowest in the county, it is one of the most unhealthy areas and lacks the sort of infrastructure many in North Texas take for granted.
The neighborhood — which is 68% Black and 21% Hispanic — lacks a major grocery store. Residents rely on food lines like the one at the Hoover community center. They carpool to grocery stores in North Texas, Mixon said. With a shortage of jobs that pay well, the average household income is $30,865, two-fifths of the average for North Texas. Last fall, the Hoover center co-hosted a virtual job fair with the State Fair of Texas.
Health care here is scarce: The life expectancy for a Black man who lives in 75215 is just 66, the lowest in the county.
One of the very first projects Mixon’s nonprofit undertook in the 1990s was a health fair. It grew to 600 people annually, Mixon said, until she canceled last year’s event because of the coronavirus pandemic.
She’s trying to figure out how to pull one off this year. Until then, she and other South Dallas residents have a new injustice to reverse.
“It’s not a new fight for us,” she said. “It’s what this community has always had to do.”
‘Not very good at computers’
A little after 10 a.m., Sallie Johnson, 73, was one of the first neighbors to pull up. And she was happy for the registration help. She had tried on her own but hadn’t gotten very far.
“I’m not very good at computers,” she said.
It was a familiar theme among the mostly older population that rolled through the pantry line — if they even knew they could sign up online.
Technology and internet access is terrible in the neighborhood — if it exists at all.
Politicians should have known that before relying too heavily on the internet, said Edward Rincón, a Dallas-based marketing analyst. According to his mapping research, less than a third of residents in southern and northwest Dallas completed the census questionnaire online.
“The politicians seem so surprised to see interest in the vaccine from these communities,” he said. “Of course there is — this is life and death. The problem has been the online vehicle for public awareness, registration and distribution.”
In one of the first attempts to help those without internet or computer skills register for the vaccine, the county set up a hotline. A handful of the people in line Tuesday said they had tried calling but couldn’t get through.
Others said they had resisted because they can’t stand in long lines. It was easier for them to avoid the virus by staying home. Several in the drive-through asked about the shots’ side effects, which are minor and rare.
Richard McKinney, 56, said he had just beaten a nasty case of COVID-19 and had stepped out of his house for the first time on New Year’s Day after weeks of isolation.
“I’ve got my reservation about the vaccine. My doctor said I should consider getting it,” he said.
“All medicine you take has — what you call it, baby?” he asked, turning to his wife, Marquette, 55, in the passenger seat of their truck.
“Side effects,” she said.
“Yeah, side effects.”
‘Outside the box’
Public health experts say it’s this type of event, coupled with a consistent and fact-based message about the vaccine, that will ensure equity.
Most governments have failed so far at distributing the vaccine equitably, said Dr. Jamboor Vishwanatha, director of the Texas Center for Health Disparities in Fort Worth.
“If the vaccine delivery is dependent on the health care system, you’re leaving out the population who don’t have insurance and who don’t see a health care provider,” he said.
A fleet of mobile vaccination teams and clinics that can offer shots in the evening and on weekends will be critical to reaching everyone, he said. “Something outside the box would definitely be helpful.”
On Wednesday, the state announced a pilot mobile vaccination program staffed by the Texas National Guard. It will focus first on five rural counties.
Dr. Michael LeNoir, a Dallas native and former president of the National Medical Association, said governments must work toward the goal of vaccinating Black and Hispanic communities.
That starts with communicating about the virus, the vaccine and how to access it.
Officials have to overcome decades of distrust of the health care system among Black and Hispanic people. And they’re starting with a major strategic disadvantage.
In any other public health emergency, governments could count on Black churches and other faith communities to get the word out, LeNoir said. But now many churches are shuttered or virtual only because of the coronavirus.
“We don’t have established lines of communication,” LeNoir said. “There needs to be a different way to communicate.”
‘We can save Dallas’
The registration event at Mixon’s nonprofit was not without hiccups.
Cars backed up as volunteers fought for a wireless signal, eventually turning to their own phones for hot spots. No one on site — except a photographer for The Dallas Morning News — could translate for the few Spanish speakers who showed up.
But by noon, as the line thinned out, Mixon was satisfied. Once again, South Dallas residents had taken care of their own.
Two days later, Mixon learned the city would recognize her enrollment efforts and designate her nonprofit as an official city registration site. As the news spread, her phone buzzed with volunteers and offers for help. She’s going to need it, she said, as the pandemic continues to advance.
“This virus is not going away very soon,” she said. “If everyone helps, we can save Dallas.”
How to register for the vaccine
To receive a vaccine at a state vaccine hub in Dallas County, you must have an appointment. To join the waiting list, visit Dallas County’s website. Other hubs and their registration websites can be found at the state health department’s website.
To register with Dallas County by phone, call 469-749-9900 through Feb. 3. Beginning Feb. 4, call 855-466-8639.
The state has currently authorized the vaccine for front-line health care workers, residents and staff members of long-term care facilities, people 65 or older, or anyone over 16 who has a major medical condition such as diabetes or cancer. However, some hubs are prioritizing different populations. Officials have suggested registering with multiple hubs to increase your chances of getting the shot.