Case numbers in D.C. never spun out of control to overwhelm medical facilities, as they did in New York City and Los Angeles. A field hospital set up in D.C.’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center never had to be used. “We didn’t have refrigerator trucks in the back of hospitals,” notes Andrew Lightman, the managing editor of Capital Community News, which publishes community newspapers in D.C.
Read: The fourth surge is upon us. This time, it’s different.
Getting people to shelter in place and maintain social distance is hard, and D.C. managed that part extremely well. Vaccinating people would seem, by comparison, pretty easy. But that part has gone poorly in Washington. Why?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services bears much of the blame, and by extension the Trump administration, which made a bad decision about the District’s vaccine allocation, and the Biden administration, which has failed to correct that decision.
HHS decided early on that vaccine doses would be distributed to states and territories based on population. For most jurisdictions, that made sense. For D.C., it made no sense at all. That’s because D.C. must vaccinate a huge number of people who live in other states.
Three-quarters of all the people who work in D.C. live in Maryland or Virginia, mostly because housing in the District is too expensive. The capital’s so-called daytime population, which includes people who come into the city every day to work, is nearly double the nighttime population of about 700,000. Many of these people are essential workers who can’t work from home and therefore must be vaccinated to do their jobs—hospital workers, police officers, firefighters, teachers, grocery workers.
Washington is a major health-care hub for the mid-Atlantic region, employing 85,000 health-care workers (nearly 6,000 of them at MedStar Washington Hospital Center alone). “Private hospitals are our biggest private-sector employers in this city,” the city-council member Elissa Silverman told me. Those 85,000 health-care workers, she said, require about 120,000 vaccine doses.
Ultimately, about one-third of all vaccine doses administered thus far within the District—more than 94,000—have gone to out-of-staters. Another wrinkle is that vaccine allocations for the roughly 141,000 people who work at the federal agencies within D.C.’s borders come out of the District’s population-based ration, even though the District doesn’t administer those doses. The upshot is that D.C.’s population-based vaccine allotment—44,440 this week, the third-smallest allocation in the country, after Wyoming and Vermont—likely falls short by one-third to one-half. How could that happen?
Because D.C. isn’t a state. If a federal agency isn’t serving a state well, it can expect to hear complaints from that state’s congressional delegation. But D.C. doesn’t have a congressional delegation. It has one delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is one of the very best members of Congress—but who is not permitted to vote on the House floor. Norton can vote in committee, but she doesn’t sit on the House Appropriations Committee, so she can’t bring HHS to heel by threatening to cut its budget. No D.C. delegate has ever sat on Appropriations. Were Norton to chair some other House committee, she might have the means to intimidate HHS, but no D.C. delegate has ever held a full committee chair, either. When District residents complain of “taxation without representation,” this is what they’re talking about.