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How Do You Get Your City A Federal Mass Vaccine Site? 'Ask Directly' And Call It A 'Pilot'


By Derek Kravitz, Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation

The Biden administration is slowly opening 100 federally-run mass vaccination sites across the country in its first 100 days.

It's an ambitious goal and FEMA opened its first pilot sites last week in Los Angeles and Oakland. Other sites are planned for Queens and Brooklyn, New York and Houston, Dallas and Arlington, Texas. Louisiana has secured the Morial Convention Center for its mass vaccination site.

But the pitch for a FEMA-run site is more involved than the federal questionnaire and an official request. Emails obtained by the Columbia University's Brown Institute for Media Innovation reveal that the New Orleans Health Department prepared a letter for Mayor LaToya Cantrell to give to the Biden administration on her Feb. 12 visit to the White House.

“Our community has suffered significant health and economic loss due to the pandemic, and we know that robust vaccination efforts are the key to recovery,” an excerpt from a draft of the letter, sent via email by Health Department Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno, read. “The City has partnered with FEMA and other federal agencies during this crisis and many others, and has a proven track record of being able to quickly and efficiently manage operations with available resources. We would welcome the opportunity to be one of the first pilot sites to operate across the country.”

On Feb. 8, the New Orleans Health Department sent along answers to a questionnaire about the city’s vaccination efforts to FEMA, with some sobering statistics: The city was averaging just 8,000 vaccine doses a week. The COVID-19 death rate for Black residents is more than 73%. But when looking at who has either received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine or is on a citywide waitlist for one, the percentage of Black residents getting a shot was just 36%.

Three days later, on Feb. 11, the health department drafted the letter for Cantrell to give to the Biden administration during her D.C. visit the next day.

"I've been told by some folks in the know that the Mayor should directly ask the Biden administration to have New Orleans be a FEMA mass vaccination pilot site. (and apparently it's important to call it a ‘pilot’)," Avegno wrote. "They suggested that we should frame it with the background of how hard New Orleans was hit early, and how important it will be to get folks vaccinated to mitigate further deaths and loss."

New Orleans recorded its first COVID case on March 9. Since then, more than 7,500 New Olreans residents have died and the virus will likely be the city's leading cause of death over the past year, when the final numbers are tallied.

Cantrell made it to D.C. along with several other mayors and governors — but she didn't make it to the White House. In Washington, she failed a COVID-19 screening and was barred from the meeting. A subsequent PCR test for the virus came back negative.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick contributed to this report.

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