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Michigan GOP: Vaccine distribution shouldn’t consider race, ‘social justice’

Increased rates of vaccination among Michigan residents 65 and older may have saved 250 lives, according to a Bridge Michigan analysis of state mortality data. (Shutterstock photo)

LANSING – Michigan would be barred from using residents’ race and socioeconomic status to guide distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine under a plan adopted Tuesday by Republicans on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Senate plan, set for a floor vote as soon as Thursday, would tie $110 million in federal funds for vaccine distribution to new language that prohibits the state from using a “social vulnerability index” recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Sens. Tom Barrett of Charlotte and Jim Runestad of White Lake proposed the amendment just one day after the state released data showing white residents in Michigan are so far twice as likely to have received the coronavirus vaccine as Black residents.

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The distribution model used by the state does not impact who qualifies for the vaccine — seniors and frontline workers make up the initial priority groups, regardless of race. But Barrett argued that “a social justice platform” and “biased judgment” should not be a factor in distribution.

Under the GOP plan, the state could only base vaccine distribution on “the estimated number of individuals in each priority group who have not yet been fully vaccinated in each locality.”  Race, gender, national origin, religion, sex or socio-economic status could not be considered.

“I don’t care what race they are, these are the people who are vulnerable to die,” said Runestad, noting that seniors are far more likely to die from the virus than younger populations. 

Democrats opposed the amendment, pointing out that African Americans account for a disproportionate number of Michigan’s COVID-19 deaths. Since March, Black residents have comprised 3,420 of 15,396 COVID-19 deaths, or 22 percent, despite making up about 14 percent of the population.

The index is “important, not because we see a community as more important than another, but because most Caucasian folks have access to… great health care and are not disproportionately impacted by this in the way other communities are,” said Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit.

The social vulnerability index is just one part of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s vaccine distribution model, which considers population and the number of older residents in a given community. 

The index, as compiled by the CDC, recommends states consider other factors like minority status, poverty and languages spoken when deciding where to ship doses. 

Without using the vulnerability index, a community with 10 percent of the population would get 10 percent of the vaccines, according to the state. 

But in an effort to address disparities rooted in poverty, age and health conditions, officials are taking into account the size of those vulnerable communities. 

In an example provided by the state, Detroit, which has one of the largest vulnerable populations in Michigan, would get 5 percent more vaccines than its population alone would warrant. But because socioeconomic status is also a factor, the index also favors several rural and white regions, like Clare, Chippewa, Lake and Osceola counties.

Whitmer hasn’t made public her exact formula for vaccine distributions, and it’s attracted criticism from Democrats as well as Republicans.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, for instance, have questioned why they are receiving fewer doses per-capita than other communities.

In one recent week, Detroit received twice as many vaccines as neighboring Macomb County, which has a higher population (873,000 to about 670,000 for Detroit).

President Joe Biden’s administration has prioritized equitable vaccine distribution across racial and other demographic lines, and the new budget language from Senate Republicans could unintentionally hurt Michigan’s ability to get doses, contended Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing. 

“If states do not have an equity plan for those communities that have been disproportionately affected by the virus and are more likely to die, they will be getting less vaccines,” he said. “It will mean we get less vaccines in this state.”

A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. 

It’s not the first time Republicans have raised concerns over the state’s use of the vulnerability index. At a recent hearing of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, argued that languages spoken in communities should not be a factor in vaccine distribution but health factors should. 

Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state health department, explained that the language spoken at home is a predictor for poor health outcomes because it may indicate a lack of frequent contact with health care providers.

The dispute over the vaccine distribution factors is the latest in a string of partisan feuds over COVID-relief funds.

Whitmer proposed a $5.6 billion supplemental spending plan more than a month ago, with COVID-19 money for schools, business and more, but legislative Republicans have not yet sent her a counter offer. Committee chairs have declined multiple requests for a sit-down meeting with State Budget Director Dave Massaron, a request he renewed by written letter this week.  

GOP majorities in both chambers have complained about continued business restrictions imposed by the Whitmer administration, and in an effort to maintain leverage for future negotiations, have proposed spending only a portion of the federal funding immediately.  

A separate House plan seeks to force policy concessions by the Democratic governor, including a provision that would limit the state’s ability to close schools in the event of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Bridge Michigan reporter Mike Wilkinson contributed to this story. 

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