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Vaccine demand in Michigan is outpacing supplies, and it’s not even close

Karen Bouffard Sarah Rahal Jennifer Chambers   | The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of the school where Gina Escurel teaches.

Michigan's local health departments and hospitals are trying to ramp up vaccinations but say they've been limited by the amount of vaccine shipped to Michigan by the federal government.

The state, which has only a small fraction of the COVID-19 vaccine needed to immunize those now eligible, should have waited to offer the vaccine to people 65 and older, some health officials believe. 

Large-scale vaccination centers, which have been swiftly set up across the state, have the capacity to inoculate tens of thousands of people per day. But appointments have been dramatically limited to the number of doses on hand and are filling up as soon as they become available, health providers said Monday.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer asked the federal government for permission on Monday for the state to make a one-time purchase of up to 100,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine directly from Pfizer Inc.

Whitmer, a Democrat, made the request in a letter to Alex Azar, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It comes after she urged Republican President Donald Trump's administration last week to release millions of vaccine doses that she said had been "held back."

"This direct purchase will fill a two-week lag in supply and ensure that we can continue to ramp up our vaccination efforts across Michigan," the governor wrote.

Health officials around the state are scrambling to keep up with demand. In Macomb County, residents who want the COVID-19 vaccine must call to register for an appointment on Tuesday mornings — but chances are their calls won't go through. 

About 300,000 Macomb residents qualify for the vaccine since Whitmer opened the shots up to people age 65 and older last week, County Executive Mark Hackel said Monday. But the county's allocation for the week will total 3,900 doses.

"Thirty thousand people are going to be calling right on time at 8:30," Hackel said. "They're not going to call at 3:30 in the afternoon. They’re going to call us all at once.

"Why would you open up the demand knowing that you didn’t have the supply?"

The 14-hospital Spectrum Health system in west Michigan opened a vaccination center in Grand Rapids on Monday and scheduled 1,800 patients for its first day. It hopes to inoculate between 1,800 and 2,400 patients per day over the next two weeks — if the vaccine supply lasts, said Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, president of Spectrum Health West Michigan, during a Monday press briefing.

"We are not making appointments when we know we won’t have vaccine," Elmouchi said. "We’re only scheduling appointments for the vaccine we currently have on hand.

"I don't know if we have any appointments open for the end of the week now because of how much demand there's been, and given the amount of vaccine we have, we're not opening appointments for next week until we're sure we get more vaccine from the government."

Some parts of the state are vaccinating people who are included in three different phases of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services vaccine distribution plan.

According to Elmouchi, Spectrum is still vaccinating some health workers who were eligible for the vaccine during Phase 1A, while continuing to vaccinate the people older than age 75 who qualified during Phase 1B, and now seniors older than 65 who are part of Phase 1C. 

"Last Wednesday, (the governor) said we’re now going to open up to people 65 and older — and every health department said, 'What are you doing?''' Hackel said.  

The Washtenaw County Health Department repurposed the Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center as a vaccination center, said Susan Ringler Cerniglia, the department's spokeswoman. The center has eight to 14 vaccination stations operating at a time and can inoculate up to a thousand people a day.

"We’re working toward as soon as we have sufficient vaccine to do 5,000 a week," she said.

Gina Escurel considered herself one of the lucky ones to have an appointment on Monday. She drove 27 miles from her home in West Bloomfield Township to get the vaccine at Holly Village Fire Hall, where the Oakland County Health Division set up for drive-thru appointments.

Escurel, a teacher at Thurston High School in the South Redford School District, said the process was quick.

"It's feeling like a cluster, this rollout," she said. "Everybody was waiting for their district to advise on what to do. I did do it on my own. It was just luck I was able to get this appointment."

Requests flood Detroit

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said Thursday demand certainly will outstrip supply, which is why Detroit is starting with limited groups being eligible to schedule for vaccines at the TCF Center garage.

The hard-hit city confirmed 27,002 cases and 1,724 deaths as of Monday. The majority of the city's cases and deaths are African Americans between 50 to 79 years old. The city has about 40,000 people older than age 75 and one-third of its coronavirus-related deaths were Detroiters between 65 to 75 years old, Duggan said.

"We cannot afford to be distracted because the stakes for the residents of this city are life and death," Duggan said Thursday.

Detroit's COVID-19 vaccine scheduling call center staffed by Rock Connections experienced "extremely high volumes, receiving more than 100,000 calls" shortly after it opened Monday, said Hakim Berry, Detroit's chief operating officer.

"Those who predicted that Detroiters would not be interested in receiving the vaccine were clearly incorrect," Berry said in a statement. "Rock Connections has already increased its call center staff from 42 to 56 representatives booking the appointments.  Call Center hours have now been increased by two hours a day and will operate 9 a.m. (to) 8 p.m."

Berry said a large number of calls were from residents who are not eligible and the center does not have the capacity to answer questions from non-Detroiters or those younger than age 75. 

Detroit is starting with vaccinating residents older than age 75 and any "good neighbor" driver, 65 or older, who accompanies them to the TCF Center, as well as essential workers, including K-12 teachers and childcare workers.

The city is booking 20,000 appointments through Feb. 5. Starting Wednesday, the city plans to distribute 400 vaccines through the TCF Center, 600 on Thursday, 800 on Friday and 1,000 each day the week following.

Those eligible can call (313) 230-0505 to schedule an appointment.

Teacher Mark Carlson got the vaccine on Monday in Macomb County. 

"I had COVID already and I knew that was not a good experience," the 48-year-old Armada School District teacher said. "I don’t know how long the antibodies would last. I coach high school sports. I am a union president too. It requires me to be around people. I don’t want to have to constantly worry about whether I am going to catch this again or bring it home."

Carlson has taught for 26 years, and students in his district just returned for in-person learning last week.

"I want to know I can get back to this normal. I want to start that normal again. And I trust science," Carlson said.

Directed to hospitals 

In the state's largest county, Wayne County health officials are directing senior residents to hospital systems to arrange their vaccine appointments as they try to prioritize the few vaccines they've been allocated, said Dr. Mouhanad Hammami, Wayne County health strategist.

Hammami said demand for the vaccine is outpacing the state of Michigan's ability to supply it to regional health departments. The county has an estimated 500,000 people eligible for the vaccine but anticipates it will only receive 2,900 doses this week.

Over the weekend, the county vaccinated 650 people. Of more than 9,000 people registered, all are considered first responders or health care essential workers.

Hospitals and health systems currently have the most reliable supply of vaccines available for seniors, he said.

"I want to emphasize that anyone 65 and older because this is the contradiction that the state has said, 'Call your health department,' which will do them no good if they call us. In fact, it will put a lot of burden on us because we are going to repeat the same message: you need to go to your health system," Hammami told The Detroit News Monday.

The county health department will be focused on vaccinating first responders, education personnel and correctional facility staff, he said.

"We are already working with the educational superintendents, they are surveying their school districts that are within Wayne County for teachers that are willing to take the vaccine and we expect those numbers to come in the next few days. As soon as we get them based on our vaccine supply, we will start scheduling them," Hammami said. "The same is going to apply for the first responders as well."

Oakland County has received 5,850 doses and administered 2,373. The county has set 3,477 vaccine appointments this week strictly to first responders in Phase 1A and has no available appointments.

William Mullan, a spokesman for Oakland County Executive David Coulter, said on Monday the county also needs more vaccines.

"Our shipment this week, we’ve been told, will only be 1,950 doses," Mullan said. "We asked for 5,000. And even with the additional doses, we can’t schedule additional appointments because current scheduled appointments account for this shipment."

Mullan said the county will not be able to determine when it reopens taking appointments until it gets next week’s shipment and knows how many doses are in it.

"The supply of vaccines will continually increase in the weeks and months that follow until everyone is able to receive a vaccine," officials said on the county’s website.

Additional clinics

Beaumont Health tripled its server capacity over the weekend after its website crashed Friday because of heavy demand for COVID-19 vaccines.

A limited number of appointments became available Monday to patients by a randomized computer lottery.

Senior patients receive an email inviting them to schedule their vaccination through their myBeaumontChart account. When Beaumont receives confirmation about how many doses will arrive next week, the health system will send additional email invitations to eligible patients to schedule appointments.

"We are in regular communication with state and local officials and talking with them about increasing our allocations of the vaccine because we have the capacity to do so much more," Beaumont Health CEO John Fox said in a press release. "Next week, we hope to launch two additional clinics and should have the capacity to do more than 50,000 vaccinations a week. Again, this all depends upon how much vaccine we receive."

Beaumont is also preparing to launch a call center to assist with answering questions and scheduling appointments. However, right now, the only way to schedule an appointment is online through myBeaumontChart.

Sparrow Health System, based in mid-Michigan, has distributed 7,700 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Sunday and is arranging plans to begin administering the vaccination this week to residents 70 and older and to essential workers, per the recommendation of the Ingham County Health Department.

The health system received 12,750 vaccine doses in recent weeks. It plans to distribute 3,650 to Sparrow caregivers and essential workers this week. It expects to receive another 4,850 doses on Tuesday.

This week's distribution is by-invitation-only in limited numbers and a wider public distribution will begin next week, officials said Monday. 

"We will announce clinic dates and distribution locations very soon. Pre-registration will be required for all vaccinations; we are finalizing an online registration system that will require proof that the patient qualifies for the vaccine," Sparrow officials said in a press release.

Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System said it also began reaching out to its existing patients 65 and older Friday afternoon through MyChart, the hospital’s online patient portal, and was proactively trying to contact patients who are not part of that system to encourage them to sign up.

Patients are not able to call to make an appointment, and there are no walk-up clinics for vaccinations, spokesman John Gillespie said.

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