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Biden upends Trump’s calculation of who gets federal vaccination help

WASHINGTON — When the Biden White House started looking for sites for four small vaccination centers across New York state, federal agency officials ranked the best spots based on a county-by-county “social vulnerability index” that measures average income, unemployment, race and a dozen other factors.

The data said Chautauqua County, a sparsely populated expanse known primarily for its wine-industry vineyards, was a leading candidate to get vaccine shots to the underserved.

But state officials said no. There were better places than Chautauqua to achieve the White House goal of vaccinating more Black and brown people, they said. They pushed back against the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which are expanding the federal footprint in the country’s race to vaccinate, a Biden administration official familiar with the fight said.

Because New York’s logic fit President Joe Biden’s mandate better than the CDC’s data did, the White House backed off.

“The state prevailed,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The details of the Biden administration’s selection method for vaccine distribution sites — and the planned locations for future vaccine mega centers — have not been previously reported.

The episode illuminates a key aspect of the change that occurred in the politics of the national fight against Covid-19 when Biden took office Jan. 20. As Biden has acted to strengthen the federal government’s hand in coordinating vaccination efforts across the country — particularly in empowering FEMA as the lead response agency — he has also reversed the politics of combating the crisis.

Former President Donald Trump used his power over federal resources and contracting dollars to reward governors, senators and business leaders who praised him privately and publicly as he sought re-election. By contrast, Biden has prioritized vaccinating people who are both vulnerable and representative of his political coalition. His administration is even providing support to vaccination sites in churches, hoping to persuade more Black and Hispanic people to get the shots.

Trump faced a barrage of criticism from Day One of the pandemic that his priorities and mismanagement were hampering the response. Now, Biden is trying to balance his top priorities: getting as many shots into arms as quickly as possible while ensuring that the process prioritizes low-income and minority communities, without doing so in a way that creates delays.

“Heavy emphasis on communities of color, minority communities, economically and socially disadvantaged,” a FEMA official said. “Anything Trump did, we’re doing the opposite.”

Chautauqua County, which is about 90 percent white, won’t get one of the four upstate New York centers, each of which is expected to vaccinate up to 1,000 people a day. Instead, the “federally supported” facilities are scheduled to open…

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