Millions of Michiganders are now eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. But when it will be available for them, how they will schedule it, and where people will go to get it will depend largely on where they live.
“It’s not going to look the same from county to county, or health district to health district,” said Kerry Ott, spokesperson for the LMAS health district that covers four counties in the eastern Upper Peninsula. There, eligible residents (including those age 65 or older) can sign up for a vaccine in one of three ways, depending on where they live.
“And the bottom line is that it all depends on supply,” she said.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — who recently announced vaccine eligibility would expand starting Monday to anyone 65 and older and several new groups of essential workers — defended Michigan’s slow rollout Friday, saying Michigan is "in the same situation as every other state: We're all building this up."
Statewide, just under 200,000 of the 725,850 vaccine doses sent to Michigan have been administered as of Friday, according to the state’s vaccine dashboard.
And Michigan ranked 40th among states Friday in vaccines administered per 100,000 residents, according to data tracking by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
State Rep. Graham Filler, R-DeWitt, blamed communication breakdowns between the Whitmer administration and local health officials for the fitful start to vaccine distribution in Michigan.
“Hospitals and health departments have no idea how and when they are receiving the vaccine doses, because the communication seems to be so bad," he said. "And so then these health departments can't schedule things."
"We all knew that getting vaccines was the key to reopening the state, to getting people immunized to the virus, and so why is there such a shocking lack of preparation from the governor's office?"
But some health officials involved in the process say vaccine data has been lagging or can be misleading.
For example, it appeared this week that Oakland County’s health department — whose website indicates there are no appointment openings to get a vaccine — had thousands of unused supplies. As of Friday morning, the county had administered 2,373 of the 5,850 vaccines shipped to them, according to its website.
But the apparently unused 3,477 vaccines were not sitting idly in storage; rather, they were reserved for people who had already signed up for shots through Tuesday, said Bill Mullan, a county spokesperson.
When additional vaccine supplies arrive from Pfizer, he said, the county will re-open scheduling.
“We get 24 hours notice [on] how many doses and when it will arrive,” Mullan said. “On our first shipment, we got an email saying they were going to arrive, and [the shipment] showed up a half-hour later.”
Complicating logistics is that both the Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines — the two vaccines approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — each require two doses, doubling the paperwork, scheduling and staff time for each recipient.
It’s going to be a lurching ride for a while, some county and health officials told Bridge Michigan.
In addition to local health department websites, Michiganders are urged to find vaccine information, as it becomes available, at vaccinefinder.org and on the state’s website. (On Friday, just two local health departments had uploaded their information to that site.)
Public health stretched thin as vaccines arrive
Of course, many residents remain unsure whether they want a COVID-19 vaccine, at least for now.
Public health officials say they want at least 70 percent of the state vaccinated to achieve herd immunity from the virus. To get there, they realize more education is needed to make people comfortable with the vaccine. That task is complicated during a pandemic, when many public workers are already stretched thin by contact tracing efforts, virus testing and sorting out the logistics of administering the vaccines.
In Clio in Genesee County, David Thompson said he and his wife, Cheryl, both 66, know that adverse reactions to the vaccines have been rare. Still.
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“It only takes a little gram of doubt, and you start worrying about it,” he said. “I have people relying on me, and I worry: If something happens to me, what happens to them?”
“I’d feel better if I had some positive information,” he said. “To be honest, I’m not sure where to get the answers” about the safety of the vaccine.
Public health experts have told Bridge that education outreach will take many forms: through the news media and social media, phone calls, web sites, and fliers delivered through programs that deliver meals, for example, to the homebound.
But they’ll also rely on family members and loved ones to reach the most isolated Michiganders.
“It's going to take effort by everyone, not just the county to get the word out,” said Mullan, of Oakland County.
Cam McClure, 73, of West Bloomfield, an advocate for seniors as a member of the Oakland County Senior Advisory Council, said he worries about the ability of older residents who are living on their own to get a vaccine.
“The person in the nursing home or the people in the hospitals — they’re in one place and easy to get to,” he said, referring to the state’s efforts to date to vaccinate those in nursing homes or health care.
“We need answers,” said Cam McClure, 73, who said he and friends are relying on local officials to help them access vaccines. (Bridge file photo by Dale Young)
“But it’s people like me that you’ll have problems reaching. You have to tell me ‘Where do I have to go? What do I have to do? When will it happen?’ We need the answers,” McClure said.
Sandra Tyner, also of West Bloomfield, said she has been frustrated by her inability to get those answers.
The 76-year-old former teacher said she has called pharmacies but has been told they’re not scheduling yet.
She called her doctor’s office: “They said they won’t have them for another three months,” she said.
She thinks she’s enrolled to get an update from the Oakland County Health Department.
And she’s enlisted the help of her son to navigate websites and text messaging.
“I don’t know how they’ll get hold of everyone. I’m trying to be proactive, and I’m not getting anywhere,” Tyner said.
She’s been waiting for a vaccine and she’s now eligible, But West Bloomfield’s Sandra Tyner, 73, still doesn’t have an appointment for a vaccine. (Courtesy photo)
Republican Senate Health Policy Chair Curt VanderWall, of Ludington, also criticized the Whitmer administration: "They underestimated the desire, the need and the help that it takes to get this done," he told Bridge two days after calling on state health director Robert Gordon to resign from President-elect Joe Biden's transition team to focus exclusively on the state vaccine rollout.
But Democrat Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan sees it differently; directing blame instead at the Trump administration, which has largely left the vaccine rollout to each state.
“Understand, the federal government never had a sensible distribution plan,” he said Thursday, in announcing a plan to begin vaccinating 20,000 people at the Detroit TCF center in the next month. Vaccinations for Detroit police and transportation workers began Friday; seniors over 65 can be vaccinated next Wednesday.
Michigan has "pushed out every single vaccine" it has received, Whitmer said Friday, and is exploring new options to allow more pharmacies to administer doses and relieve local health departments burdened with much of the task.
Michigan is getting about 60,000 vaccines a week from Pfizer, and "100 percent of those are shipped out upon receipt," Whitmer told reporters.
The first wave went to health care systems and local health departments, which the administration is now asking to use their inventory within seven days. The state also contracted with two pharmacy chains, CVS and Walgreens, which in December began to vaccinate residents in long-term care facilities. Starting Monday, people over 65, as well as essential workers that include K-12 teachers and child care staff will qualify for vaccinations.
All Moderna vaccine doses for Michigan are shipped directly to CVS and Walgreens to administer each week through 207-vaccinating locations, Whitmer said.
The Whitmer administration is "trying to get more pharmacies approved so they can engage in the federal program" to get vaccinations to the public, Whitmer added, noting that the state is also offering up the Michigan National Guard to assist.
"Our daily shots-in-arms have climbed considerably over the last week alone," she said.