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Inside the fight to get vaccinated: Why does distribution vary across Michigan?

Vaccine distribution is tricky, according to experts
Posted at 5:00 PM, Mar 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-05 18:27:17-05

(WXYZ) — For the last two months Terry Atkins, and his siblings, have been working around the clock, trying to find a vaccine for their 94-year-old mother, Fritzi Atkins, who lives alone in Plymouth.

"My wife alone probably 350 calls or more," said Atkins who lives in North Carolina. "We were even going down into Ohio trying to find a place for her to go."

After months of trying and failing, finally, Fritzi got an appointment for next Wednesday through the Wayne County Health Dept. But her struggle highlights just how difficult finding access to the vaccine is for many—even for those at greatest risk.

"Things are starting to open up it seems," said Atkins. "But definitely it’s been very difficult."

With light at the end of the tunnel for Fritzi, the state just announced it is expanding vaccine eligibility to those over 50. It follows an announcement from the City of Detroit expanding eligibility to those with disabilities as well as manufacturing workers. But outside of Detroit, where expansion is much slower, some lawmakers are fuming.

"This month the city of Detroit announced that those with intellectual or developmental disabilities for the COVID vaccine regardless of age," Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) said at a Senate session last month, complaining that, until recently, Detroit has received a greater share of the vaccine than counties like Oakland or Macomb. Following the statement he and other Republicans voted on a supplemental spending bill that including a provision banning the use of a Social Vulnerability Index—a metric that takes into account things like race and socioeconomic status—for dolling out the vaccine.

"When seniors are most at risk to COVID and are struggling to get the vaccine, the state of Michigan is engineering them with their social engineering policies!" Sen. Runestad had said before the vote.

But the rush to ban the Social Vulnerability index could be short-sighted according to experts.

"If you just look at the most deaths, it really makes sense to start with 65 and older because if you’re 80 compared with even just 50, you’re 20 times more likely to die from COVID19. So you definitely want to get 65 and then we’d like to get everyone with pre-existing medical conditions, but at the same time, targeting the populations that have poor access to medical care makes really good sense if our goal is to prevent hospitalizations and deaths," said Dr. William Petri an immunologist at the University of Virginia, pointing out that COVID does in fact discriminates, impacting black and brown individuals at greater levels.

While Black Michiganders make up 13.7% of the state’s population in the early days of the pandemic they were making up more than 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths. Detroit, which is almost 80 percent black, felt this impact particularly hard.

"A problem that we have in the US is access to medical care and the COVID epidemic is underscoring it as the populations that have suffered the most are African Americans and LatinX and those are the populations that have the worst access to medical care," said Petri.

This disconnect from the health systems is most clear when looking at the total vaccine percentages by city and county. While Detroit may have expanded eligibility as it figures out how to target and bring in its most vulnerable senior citizens, it’s still trailing its suburban counterparts when it comes to getting shots in arm. As of March 2, 11 percent of Detroit’s population had received at least one shot versus 20 percent in Oakland County, 16.5 percent in Macomb County and 21 percent in Washtenaw County.

That disparity is due, in part, to how the vaccine was rolled out. In the early stages, most doses went to hospitals.

"I think the hospitals and health systems were getting at least 70 percent of the allocation for several weeks," said Carolyn Wilson the executive vice president of Beaumont. "We’re now getting probably less than 30 percent."

While hospitals seemed like a smart system for vaccine roll-out initially, it quickly became clear that those who aren’t affiliated with a hospital system were likely to fall through the cracks. That’s especially true in Detroit.

"Detroit was a little bit out of the loop there," said Hakim Berry, Detroit's chief operating officer. "That’s why we really had to boost our efforts to make sure access is available."

In recent weeks the state has started focusing on county health departments to roll out the vaccine. Enter Detroit's TCF Center where nearly 100,000 vaccines have taken place. Of the vaccines in the city, 40 percent have gone to those 60 or older. And so as the city tries to figure out a way to target those seniors, they’ve also expanded eligibility so no shot is wasted.

"Detroit is 139 Square Miles, so we have to overcome the challenges of transportation," said Berry, noting that they have created walk-up vaccine sites in the neighborhoods, a $2 ride program for those lacking transportation to the drive-thru TCF site, and also the Good Neighbors program which allows those 55+ in the suburbs to get vaccinated at TCF if they drive in an eligible Detroit senior citizen.

So far over 5,000 suburbanites have been vaccinated through the Good Neighbors program.