GM vaccinates employees at Detroit's Factory Zero

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit — Joe Ryan was skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccination. But when the opportunity came for the 42-year autoworker to get the shot, he realized this wasn't just about him.

"When I stopped thinking about me, started thinking about my wife, my grandkids, that's what made me come get the shot," he said after getting vaccinated Wednesday at General Motors Co.'s Factory Zero Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center. "I could be a carrier and not get sick and give it to them."

Joe Ryan Jr. waits in the observation area after receiving his COVID-19 vaccine.

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GM partnered with the City of Detroit to open up the automaker's first vaccination site, one of many that it hopes to establish as more vaccines become available. The city recently made manufacturing workers eligible for the vaccine. Hundreds signed up to get the shot in a conference space at GM's under-construction Factory Zero.

The plant that previously built Chevrolet Impalas and the Cadillac CT6 will start building the GMC Hummer EV later this year followed by the autonomous electric shuttle, the Cruise Origin. 

GM hasn't backed down on its electric vehicle plans — in fact, the automaker accelerated some programs during the 2020 pandemic. But last year did come with some struggles. This time last year, GM and other automakers were shutting down their plants as a deadly virus spread through the nation.

General Motors Co.'s Chief Medical Director Dr. Jeffery Hess at Factory Zero.

"This is when I was really pulling my hair out," said Dr. Jeff Hess, GM's corporate medical director. "How do we keep protecting our employees because ... I can't control the number of infections?"

Plants closed industry-wide in mid-March and reopened eight weeks later in May with mask-wearing and social distancing rules enforced.

"We've had very few cases at any of our plants across the globe," Hess said. "While we've had quite a few infections in communities where there's a high-infection rate, you can't stop that, but the transmission rate within the plant has been almost zero."

GM is recommending, not forcing, its autoworkers to get vaccinated. The automaker has applied for every site it has with a health center to become a vaccination site when the vaccines are available, Hess said. 

"We've been going through this since March of last year and finally we've got our first vaccination clinic going here within General Motors," he said. "It's just ... it's phenomenal."

Ryan, a joint trainer and joint activity rep for United Auto Workers Local 22 at the plant, called the vaccination effort "a blessing" for members: "We don't have to go to other facilities; we don't have to go stand in line; people don't have to sit in their car and wait in long lines. This is great. This is an opportunity for us to get in, get out and still continue to do our job."

Mason McDonald receives his COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday at General Motors Co.'s Factory Zero, previously named Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center.

Factory Zero body shop manager Mike Tucker also got his COVID-19 shot. He, too, was a bit apprehensive about it before, but his nurse sister talked to him about the importance of being vaccinated. The Detroit native also remembered how badly the city was hit with infection last year and how that's still visible today. 

"I know Detroit has been really affected ... hopefully people will get vaccinated and this will help us get back to ... it won't be normal, but it'll be the new normal," he said. "We'll have to still take some precautions, but we'll be able to move forward."

Twitter: @bykaleahall