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Opinion | Vaccine distribution shouldn’t be based on ‘social vulnerability’

For weeks, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration’s response to vaccine distribution has been defined by poor communication, overly complex distribution mandates, missed and unreliable shipments and doses going to waste. This has meant that many communities, including those I represent in mid-Michigan, are being left behind as an increasing chorus of voices from the frontline call for change.

Ben Frederick
Ben Frederick is the Republican state representative for the 85th District, which includes Shiawassee County. (Courtesy photo)

Michigan’s vaccine distribution strategy should primarily focus on smoothing out the supply chain, allowing for and communicating as much certainty in pending shipments as possible and supporting rather than impeding the efforts of our local health care partners putting shots in arms. Dose prioritization should have as its central focus senior citizens with existing medical conditions, universally recognized as the most at-risk population.

After not issuing guidance for months on vaccination strategies, a late January directive from the Whitmer administration announced that vaccine shipments were to be weighted toward counties based on a “social vulnerability index.” The index includes some sensible factors, such as population aged 65 and older, yet also incorporates more than a dozen other factors like percentage of residents with high school diplomas, vehicle ownership, single-parent households and ability to speak English.

Science has not shown us that the COVID-19 virus picks its victims based on how much money they make, the language they speak or whether they have a high school diploma. Time and again the chief factors for poor outcomes and death have been age and comorbidities. Absent this reality being central to distribution strategy, the result of the Whitmer administration mandate has been that vulnerable seniors across much of our state have been made to wait as their doses are sent to other communities. Shiawassee County in my area loses about one-third of its doses due to this mandate as other counties with similar population and demographics receive more.


Poor communication from MDHHS and this overly complex distribution formula has meant frontline partners like Memorial Healthcare in Shiawassee County have suffered. Memorial Healthcare has now received no first-dose vaccines for two weeks. Prior to that, the hospital system received just 100 doses even though they have the capacity to administer thousands and continue to play a central role on COVID management in our region. And while the local health department received 800 first doses this week and will partner with Memorial for distribution, short notice from the state and uncertainty on future shipments makes clinic planning and distribution very difficult to plan. It is no surprise that many at-risk residents in this area feel left behind.

Partnerships with the medical professionals we trust are also being ignored. Growing frustration led to a recent commentary from the president of the Michigan State Medical Society asking why physicians have been given no role in vaccine distribution. These doctors, our health care systems and other frontline entities are the ones left explaining things to angry residents after announcements made by the governor about expanded eligibility when there simply aren’t the doses to follow through. This appeal taken alongside statements expressing frustration with state distribution and poor information flow from the CEO of Memorial Healthcare make obvious the growing disconnect between decision makers at DHHS and frontline partners. 

Throughout this pandemic, we have been told time and again to “wait for the next announcement” as decisions were made in secret by state bureaucrats. Gov. Whitmer and the MDHHS would do well to remember that our hospital systems, public health agencies and physician community have remained on our front line throughout. They’re the ones we trust, and their involvement has a tremendous ability to influence hearts and minds far more than executive orders and restrictions. The state should listen to them and get out of the way so they can continue to pursue with care and excellence their important work keeping our communities safe.

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