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Half of Michigan seniors still awaiting shots, as state expands vaccinations

senior getting shot
Some counties are doing far better than others are inoculating older residents, according to a Bridge Michigan review of state data. (Shutterstock image)

Renee Leon kept hearing friends in other states complain about how hard it was to get the coronavirus vaccines.

That surprised Leon, 69, who lives near Traverse City. She didn't have to scour the internet nor call pharmacies and doctor offices. Instead, the Grand Traverse Commission on Aging called her to set up an appointment.

She went, got the shot, and was done.

“It could not have been easier,” she said.

Leon lives in Grand Traverse County, where over 80 percent of all residents 65 and older have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccines. It is by far the highest rate in Michigan, where 49 percent of seniors have had at least the first of two required doses.

With the state on Monday expanding eligibility to those 50 and older with underlying health conditions, some counties are doing far better at vaccinating those 65 and older, according to a Bridge Michigan analysis of vaccine and census data.


The vaccinations are critical to curb a pandemic that has decimated Michigan and the nation, since those 50 and older compose nearly 97 percent of the state’s 15,600 COVID-19 deaths.

“The goal when we are focusing on vaccinating those at high risk is to decrease mortality,” said Joseph Eisenberg, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan. “As our coverage of those at high risk increases, we should see a significant decrease in mortality.”

Eligibility expands to all those over 50 on March 22, as the state expects a dramatic increase in supply over the next few weeks.

And while Michigan has administered 2.4 million doses, it’s done a middling job vaccinating the state’s 1.8 million residents 65 and older.

In Ohio, 54 percent of seniors have been vaccinated, while the rate is 60 percent in Wisconsin and 40 percent in Pennsylvania. 

Overall, Michigan ranks 40th in rate of first doses to all ages and 20th in both doses — and rates vary widely among counties in their success, according to a Bridge analyst of Centers for DIsease Control data.

In Oscoda County in northern Michigan, fewer than 30 percent of seniors have received the first dose, while the rate is less than 40 percent in Detroit and Monroe, St. Clair and Livingston counties.

Unlike racial data — which is unknown to the state for nearly 40 percent of those inoculated — age and geographic records are far more reliable, since recipients are required to say where live and their age. 

Experts say demand for the vaccines is so high it’s unlikely the geographic disparities are due to seniors opting out. Instead, some counties with large numbers of nursing homes and higher incomes have higher inoculation rates than others, but that is not universally the case.

Several rural counties, including Schoolcraft and Alger counties in the Upper Peninsula and Kalkaska and Alpena counties in the northern lower peninsula have rates over 60 percent.


But other rural counties, like Oscoda in eastern Michigan and Cass on the Indiana border, are at 30 percent. 

In Grand Traverse County, health officials say teamwork among local leaders is the key to success.

They say they created a system that had senior advocates call many of the county’s 18,000 residents who are 65 and older (about 1 in 5 of the county’s residents.)

The United Way of Northwest Michigan created a call center as well, said Wendy Hirschenberger, the Grand Traverse Health Department’s health officer. 

“Those (groups) all collectively worked together,” she said.

Other counties in the region — connected by the regional United Way — have also done well, including Emmet County (67.5 percent vaccinated), Kalkaska County (65.8 percent) and Charlevoix County (63.4 percent).

Working ‘twice as hard’

Reaching seniors has proved more of a challenge elsewhere in Michigan, as older residents crossed county lines — and sometimes state lines — to line up appointments.

And in some places like Detroit, where an estimated 34 percent of seniors 65 and older have gotten at least a first dose, it is doubly hard, Mayor Mike Duggan said. 

Many seniors do not have primary care doctors to help, have trouble with transportation and may not have access to the internet, the mayor said. There are about 97,000 seniors in Detroit, and nearly 1 in 5 is impoverished, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We have to work twice as hard to reach the same folks,” Duggan said this week, in response to a question from Bridge Michigan.

The city has had special vaccination events on Saturdays, set up clinics in senior apartments and offered vaccinations to “good neighbors” —  including suburbanites of any age — who drive any Detroiter, 60 and older, to a clinic.

Getting that population vaccinated has been an imperative, since nearly 1,500 Detroit residents 60 and older have died from COVID-19 at mortality rates far higher than those of seniors across Michigan.

“We are being very intentional,” Duggan said.

In Berrien County in southwest Michigan, many seniors did not have to go far — or to an unfamiliar place — to get their shot.

The county set up vaccine clinics at several senior centers across the county and in cities including St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, said Gillian Conrad, a spokesperson for the county health department.

“That was a really great partnership, because they knew the facilities, they were comfortable,” Conrad said.

It worked, with over 58 percent of the county’s 29,700 seniors getting at least one dose so far.

Calls for patience

Michigan gives wide latitude to counties and health agencies to set rules for eligibility, and some counties are working to ensure older residents are vaccinated before turning to those who are 50 and older.

One-fifth of the state, over 2 million people, is 50 to 64, and that has many seniors worried they will move to the back of the line, said Angelique Joynes, Allegan County’s health officer.

The west Michigan county has inoculated about 42 percent of seniors but 4,000 remain on the waiting list.

Joynes called for patience and said the county will accept vaccine registration from those 50 and older, but the focus will remain on those 65 and up.

“We are happy with the state’s decision to open vaccine eligibility for individuals aged 50 and older, but the reality is a majority of our individuals aged 65 and above have not had the opportunity to get vaccinated yet,” she said. 

“We want to work through the rest of this group who has been patiently waiting.”

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