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Michigan opens COVID vaccine to those 65 and older, other frontline workers

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)

Michigan seniors 65 and older can start getting the coronavirus vaccine next week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Wednesday, triggering a new wave of vaccinations for older residents and frontline workers such as teachers and police officers.

 

Whitmer said that local public health departments have been told they can expand the list of eligible vaccine recipients beginning Monday. 

While decrying a dearth of vaccine shipments she blamed on the federal government, she defended the state’s early vaccination program as having gone well, despite data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show Michigan has been among the worst in the nation in administering vaccines.

As of Wednesday, just over 152,000 Michigan residents have received the first of two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, according to the state’s most recent vaccine data. (The state has received over 665,850 doses.)

Only six other states had lower vaccination rates as of Tuesday, but the governor said Wednesday afternoon that updated CDC numbers would show the state among the top 5. They did not. Federal numbers released Wednesday showed at least 37 states are still vaccinating at higher rates.

“I think it's fair to say no one in this country is pleased with the speed of vaccinations,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical officer, noting hiccups in vaccination distribution across much of the nation. 

Calling the speed of the rollout “absolutely concerning,” Khaldun said the state has worked with hospitals through the holidays to speed vaccinations. “So, we absolutely have some work to do.”

 

Noting progress, however, Whitmer said it was time to move beyond the frontline doctors, nurses, emergency workers and nursing home residents and staff to begin vaccinating other more vulnerable populations.

Those in the next group, called group 1B, include older residents who have suffered greatly during the pandemic and other frontline workers most exposed to the virus, including teachers, law enforcement, corrections workers, agricultural workers and grocery store employees.

Whitmer said eligible people interested in getting the vaccine can look to the state’s website or local public health departments. Other organizations will also be working with affected groups to let them know how to sign up and schedule a vaccine.

Whitmer said she wants people to register for a slot at a clinic or wherever they’re given so the distribution can be orderly and safe. 

“We don't want to see people standing in lines, we don't want to see people jeopardizing their health like we've seen in other states and that's why it's important to make sure that you've made an appointment before you head out to get your vaccine,” she said.

Mark Hornbeck, a spokesman for AARP of Michigan, which advocates for older residents, said 95 percent of all COVID-19 deaths have been among people 50 or older. The AARP has supported the decision to vaccinate nursing home residents first.

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"What’s important now is to ramp up production and distribution of the authorized vaccines so that everyone who wants to get vaccinated can do so," Hornbeck said.

There are over 1.7 million people in Michigan who are 65 or older, creating a potentially huge wave of demand for vaccinations that require far more planning than is needed for, say, a flu vaccine. In addition to requiring two doses, weeks apart, there are staffing and location concerns and the need for clinics and health offices to ensure people can remain socially distant.

The advice from Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, spokeswoman for the Washtenaw County Health Department:  “Be patient.”

Public health departments, whose staff are already working “gazillions” of hours to fight the spread of COVID, now will have to ramp up efforts yet again, she said.

They’ll reserve space for clinics, shift around personnel to run them, and schedule the public for vaccinations weeks, not just days, ahead of time.

They’ll partner with local provider groups, such as those offering mobile meals to the homebound, to reach isolated residents. In Washtenaw County, public health officials will begin scheduling appointments by phone for seniors and other Michiganders reluctant or unable to schedule their appointments online. 

“Is it incredibly challenging to have something ready for next week when it was supposed to be ready for next month? Absolutely. Do I wish we had 10 more hours of the day? Absolutely,” Ringler-Cerniglia said.

Public health officials told Bridge Michigan earlier this week they will reach out through the news media, social media, via mobile meals and other outreach programs as well as faith leaders. 

But health officials say they’ve been challenged to organize vaccination clinics without knowing with more precision from the federal government when and how many vaccines will be shipped at any time.

“When we start opening up vaccine administration to more groups, we will post clinic locations on our website or on VaccineFinder,”  Lynn Sutfin, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, told Bridge in an email Monday. VaccineFinder is a national tool created by Boston Children’s Hospital that covers all vaccines.

“Until then,” she wrote, “MDHHS, along with local health departments, will be reaching out to specific populations to be vaccinated since it will be a targeted approach. Also we will communicate via the media as we move to vaccinating different priority groups.”

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