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Demand for vaccine declines in parts of Michigan, even as COVID surges

vaccines
Health officials are canceling vaccine clinics in parts of Michigan due to lack of interest, prompting some to question whether the state can reach herd immunity. (Bridge file photo)

July 23: Some caution over rising Michigan COVID cases and positive tests
April 22: As Michigan COVID vaccine rates ebb, pop up clinics and casino cash appear
April 19: Whitmer may be right. Michigan may have turned the corner on COVID surge.

As Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer implores the White House for a surge of vaccines to stem a surge in COVID-19, there may be a flaw in her solution: Many counties can’t find takers for the current supply.

Health officials in eastern, central, northern and western Michigan say vaccine appointments are going unfilled even as the state experiences the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the country.

 

“We have seen the demand wane,” said Steve Hall, the health officer for the six-county Central Michigan Health Department in the northern Lower Peninsula. “We’re struggling (to fill appointments) right now.”

In three of the department’s counties, slots are still open for vaccine clinics this week in Standish, Clare and Gladwin, he said.

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In the Thumb, the hardest-hit region in the hardest-hit state, residents are well aware of both the spike of cases and the availability of the vaccine, said Ann Hepfer, health officer of Huron and Tuscola counties. 

Yet a vaccine clinic last week had more than 200 no-shows. And you can walk right up at the local Walmart and get a shot without waiting, she said.

 

“If they’re not busting down our door (now), they’re not interested,” she said.

The apparent disinterest, just three months after the vaccine rollout began, could point to huge hurdles in Whitmer’s plan to rely on inoculations to slow the thunderous spread of COVID-19.

The goal is to create “herd immunity” against the coronavirus that has killed 16,512 since last year by vaccinating 70 percent of the 8 million residents 16 and older.

Michigan is at 40 percent of those 16 years old and older, as more than 2 million people are fully vaccinated and another 1.2 million have received the first of two doses. 

The state ranks 31st in the rate of vaccinating residents, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Whitmer: This surge is different

Whitmer has eschewed new mandatory restrictions amid the current surge, asking on Friday for a voluntary two-week shutdown of high schools and youth sports and residents to avoid indoor dining.

Her message has leaned heavily on personal responsibility, but also on vaccinations. The White House turned down Whitmer’s request for a surge in vaccines in hard-hit states like Michigan, but she said she’ll continue making the case.

Whitmer has routinely pointed out the differences between the fall surge, when no one had been vaccinated, and now when 70 percent of those 65 and older — the most vulnerable population — have been vaccinated.

“I believe (the) government's role is, when we can't take action to protect ourselves, the government must step in, and that's where we were a year ago, that's where we were four months ago,” Whitmer said Monday at a vaccination clinic at Eastern Michigan University. “We’re in a different moment, every one of us has the ability and knowledge to do what it takes.”

Whitmer’s plan to rely on vaccines faced renewed criticism on Monday from the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who said Michigan should “shut down” rather “vaccinate our way out of it.”

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said vaccines take two to six weeks to be effective and “the answer …is to really close things down, to go back to our basics, to go back to where we were last spring, last summer, and to shut things down to flatten the curve.”

Either way, polls show a quarter of the country do not plan to get the vaccine, with greater reluctance among Republicans and young people.

Hall, the northern Michigan health officer, attributed the hesitancy to questions and fears among younger residents. Nearly 70 percent of people 65 and older have gotten the vaccine in the region, he said, yet tens of thousands more are still eligible.

“There should still be plenty of people who could be vaccinated,” he said.

He said he’s already told the state that the region won’t need a shipment of over 1,100 doses it was expecting next week. 

He said he told the state: “For next week, feel free to send it somewhere else.”

Vaccine in demand, just not everywhere

Some regions are still experiencing sufficient demand, and the state continues to administer more doses each week than the week before, topping 500,000 doses each of the last four weeks. 

But while big counties such as Oakland, Macomb and Kent keep administering more doses each week, other counties are giving less, state data shows.

In Alger County in the Upper Peninsula, for instance, state records show 114 doses were used the week ending April 3, compared to 801 for the week ending March 13. 

There were similar dropoffs in Chippewa, Gladwin, Gratiot and other counties.

In the Thumb, Hepfer said demand has fallen among younger residents as well. A vaccine clinic for 16 and 17 year-olds had to be cancelled. 

“We couldn’t fill it,” she said.

Health officials in northwest Michigan and Calhoun County demand is slackening there as well. And in Ingham County, health officer Linda Vail said her county expects the same could occur within a couple of weeks.

“We are definitely seeing difficulty in filling up our clinic schedules,” said Eric Pessell, health officer for Calhoun County. He said the state has already reduced allocations to the county because of a reduction in interest. 

“We have started to transition to both scheduled and walk in availability.”

Hepfer said many in her two counties, Huron and Tuscola, are still reluctant to wear masks and remain socially distant, despite the rise in cases that is the highest in the country.

It’s forced some businesses to close because they don’t have enough workers; too many have COVID-19 or on quarantine because they were in contact with someone who had it.

Despite all that, and despite the knowledge that the vaccines are very effective, Hepfer said most of those who want it have already gotten it.

“Everybody knows it’s available,” she said. “I just think they’re not ready. They’re scared.”

Staff writer Jonathan Oosting contributed

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