Detroit Regional Chamber > Media Coverage > Michigan’s Weapon in Race Against COVID-19 Surge: Mass-Vax Sites

Michigan’s Weapon in Race Against COVID-19 Surge: Mass-Vax Sites

April 13, 2021
The Detroit News
April 3, 2021
Sarah Rahal

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and health officials appear to be leaning in part on mass vaccination sites to help meet the demand for COVID-19 vaccine doses when Michigan expands eligibility for shots to everyone age 16 and older Monday.

The state Department of Health and Human Services and governor have been vague about how they plan to handle the demand, only advising residents that they may need to wait up to several weeks before they get scheduled for an appointment at local health departments, regional hospital systems, and pharmacies.

But the announcement this past week of a couple of large Metro Detroit vaccination sites suggests the large-scale operations make up part of the strategy.

Whitmer said Friday her primary focus is expanding the state’s vaccine program even as Michigan continues to lead the country in new cases per population in the past week.

The state secured 66,020 additional doses from President Joe Biden’s administration and expects to receive a record 620,040 doses this week, Whitmer said at an event in Pontiac where Oakland County officials opened a new vaccination clinic. She added that she expects allotments to continue to increase this month as the country’s vaccine supply increases.

Whitmer attributed the surge of cases in Michigan — the number of residents in hospitals with confirmed cases is increasing at a faster rate than it did in the fall before she shuttered indoor dining and suspended in-person high school classes — to more-contagious variants, the virus spreading among kids and fatigue from residents who want to return to normalcy.

On Thursday, the Brazilian variant P.1 was confirmed in Bay County, the fifth variant found in the state.

“In the wake of these variants, rushing to vaccinate is crucial,” Whitmer said. “You combine those factors with the fact that people are tired and they’re not masking up as much, our mobility is way up… These are all things that exacerbate the problem of the fact that COVID is still a very real threat.”

The governor, who said she plans to get her vaccine Tuesday, offered few specifics about how the state would ramp up vaccinations, but on Friday announced 37 “pop-up” testing sites across Michigan to encourage people headed to or returning from spring break to get tested for the virus.

When asked when the state will reach the 70% threshold of herd immunity, she said, “it depends on all of us.”

Mass-vax sites increase

Kerry Ebersole, who is helping run the state’s vaccination program, touted the West Michigan Vaccine Clinic at DeVos Place in Grand Rapids, which set a record last Monday by administering 12,000 shots in a single day.

The West Michigan clinic, operated by Kent County, Spectrum, and Mercy Health, says it is capable of administering 20,000 vaccinations a day but is operating with a limited supply of vaccines.

Oakland County launched Friday another large vaccine distribution site at the UWM Sports Complex in Pontiac. The county is expected to administer 1,000 to 3,000 doses a day with the capability of up to give 5,000 shots a day when supply increases, Whitmer said at a press conference announcing the site.

Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter said when vaccines began rolling out, the county only had 1,950 doses to work with, but a recent weekly allocation was nearly 13,000 doses, and Coulter said Friday he expected allotments to continue to rise.

By Friday afternoon, the state had notified Oakland County it would be receiving 37,090 doses, Coulter spokeswoman Kathy Gray said.

“We’re preparing for the day we get so many vaccines, we’re not going to have the capacity to do it ourselves,” Coulter said. “This site is proof that we’re well on our way to 70% … what I like to call ‘community immunity’ in Oakland County so we can get back to some kind of normalcy in our lives.”

Warren Mayor James Fouts and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel announced a partnership to administer vaccines in a drive-through clinic at Warren City Hall starting Thursday. Residents can sign up for appointments starting Monday on the Macomb County Vaccine Web Portal at

Hackel had been anticipating more than 13,000 first doses and on Friday afternoon learned the county would receive 14,000 first doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, bringing the overall total for next week to 23,000 doses.

“That is a huge uptick in the numbers. It’s almost 10,000 more than last week. It’s nearly double what we got last week,” the county executive said. “We’re glad that we’re able to get the Johnson & Johnson. Believe it or not, a lot of people are asking for it.”

Meanwhile, the Ford Field Federal Emergency Management Agency site administered more than 38,000 in its first week of an eight-week program, Ebersole said. The goal is to administer 5,000 shots a day.

Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer at the University of Michigan, agrees Michigan is in a race against the variants.

“The vaccination program in Michigan has been successful, but the reality here is you can’t vaccinate everyone in one week,” she said. “But if there’s more vaccine, there’s increased capacity and we can get more shots. Part of this will require making sure Gen Z understand how their life is going to improve by being vaccinated.”

Malani said Michigan faces unique challenges as it has to distribute to a plethora of diverse communities, including rural, urban, and majority-minority communities during a technological divide.

“Seeing P.1, another variant of the virus enters the state, is concerning because we only have a short period of time to really do well with vaccination and get transmission down or we’ll just become endemic and we’ll be chasing this forever,” Malani said.

And the roll-out of vaccines has been too slow across the country, said Nick Maness, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans.

“My concerns center less around the variants themselves and more around the slow vaccine roll-out, which has improved in the U.S., but is still lagging in many countries and those that refuse the vaccines. The amount of data showing the safety and effectiveness of these vaccines, even against the variants, is incredible,” he said.

Waiting for appointments

As of Thursday, about 2.85 million residents had received at least one dose of a vaccine and 1.7 million — or about 21.5% of the state’s adult population — have completed the full dosage, according to state data. There is no vaccine approved for use on those age 15 or younger.

As of Thursday, the state reported 2,687 adults were hospitalized with the coronavirus, a 55% jump from a week earlier when there were 1,729 hospitalizations.

The state is leading the nation with 398.5 cases per 100,000 people. New York City trails behind at 347.9 cases, then New Jersey at 341.7 cases per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ebersole said Michigan’s steep rise in cases is a result of the younger population transmitting the disease while the state focuses on vaccinating older residents.

The state’s fully vaccinated population includes more than half of all seniors 65 years and older, 16% of people aged 50 to 64, 14% of people aged 40 to 49, and 12% of people aged 30 to 39, according to the state’s data tracker.

“As our vaccination rates go up, we have to continuously be aware of the pediatric cases and hospitalizations, which are a national story right now, and I’ve been hyper-focused as a mother of a 3-year-old,” Ebersole said during a virtual conversation with the Detroit Regional Chamber on Wednesday. “That means the virus is going to keep mutating, and that could get farther away from what the current vaccines have been designed to handle.”

The state anticipates it might still take several weeks beyond Monday for everyone who wishes to receive a vaccine to get an appointment, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said Thursday.

Sutfin did not respond Thursday and Friday to a request for additional details on how Michigan plans to increase the distribution of doses.

She did advise, as providers are scheduling appointments, that “they should consider an individual’s risk of exposure due to their employment and their vulnerability to severe disease in determining how to schedule appointments.”

Ebersole told the Detroit Regional Chamber it’s going to take a combination of using the state’s federal programs, pharmacy partnerships and collaboration with community-based organizations aiding underserved populations to vaccinate the entire state.

“We are going to do whatever we can to strive towards herd immunity by the Fourth of July,” she said. “You can count on large-scale clinics being part of the equation for the next three months along with small community clinics.

“Right now, we’re very focused on speed because it is a race.”

Ryan Malosh, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said he’s encouraged by the increasing pace of vaccinations. But Michigan needs to prepare for moments of chaos, including unforeseen issues like 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson being discarded over quality issues or appointment registration websites crashing.

He also cautioned there are plenty of people who still need to be convinced to get vaccinated.

“I especially worry about what happens when we get past those that are highly motivated to get vaccinated — or those that are easy to reach — and we need to do the harder work of convincing people that are somewhat hesitant to get vaccinated,” he said.

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