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Detroit boosts COVID-19 vaccine call center staffing, expands hours to field calls

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city is boosting its COVID-19 vaccination call center staffing, expanding the hours of operation and urging those not yet eligible to hold tight after being inundated Monday with more than 120,000 requests for vaccination appointments. 

Mayor Mike Duggan said Detroit is hoping to provide 20,000 coronavirus vaccinations by early February if the state is able to maintain an adequate supply. If additional doses come through, they hope to increase the number of vaccinations to 30,000, the mayor told reporters Tuesday.

The city of Detroit opened phone lines for scheduling COVID-19 vaccinations on Monday and intends to vaccinate 400 residents on Wednesday at the TCF Center downtown.

Duggan said when the lines opened up at 9 a.m. Monday there were 50,000 people on hold for the first half-hour.

Mayor Mike Duggan talks about vaccinations for senior citizens that are scheduled to begin Wednesday at the TCF Center in downtown Detroit.

About 4,000 callers ultimately got through and about half of them weren't yet eligible for vaccines. To better manage calls, Rock Connections, which is running the call center, has increased its staffing from 42 to 76 people. The mayor also made an appeal to the city's population younger than 75 "not to be tying up the phone lines."

"I am going to do everything I possibly can to make sure every Detroiter who needs it gets the vaccine as quickly as possible," Duggan said. "We're ready to move as fast as the vaccines show up."

The mayor's briefing at Detroit Public Safety Headquarters comes days after he announced the city will expand access to the vaccine for Detroit's most vulnerable residents including seniors and people who are homeless and that the TCF Center garage would be repurposed as a public vaccination site.

Duggan said the city has booked its first 2,000 appointments, already set up through the first part of next week.

The city's expansion came after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the state would expand vaccinations as of Monday to all state residents over 65, to front-line workers and teachers.

Detroit is currently offering vaccinations to residents over 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 also ramped up vaccinations of critical workers including police officers and bus drivers.

On Monday, about 250 "good neighbors" were booked along with those age 75 and up, Duggan said. 

The mayor's view on the target age group differs from Whitmer's. He noted that one-third of Detroiters who died of the virus last year were over 75.

People over 75 who get COVID are far more likely to die than people who are 65, he said. In Detroit, 40,000 people are over 75 and 100,000 others are older than 65, Duggan said. 

"At 1,000 a day, there was just no way that we can get to everybody," he said. "So, we made a decision that our most vulnerable folks will be protected first. We will offer the opportunity for anybody who is over 65 to be a good neighbor and bring a 75-year-old with them and you can get to the front of the line. We think that's a reasonable way to go."

Beyond Wednesday, Detroit plans to distribute 600 dozes of the vaccine at the TCF Center on Thursday, 800 on Friday and 1,000 each day next week. 

Whitmer has asked the federal government for permission for the state to make a one-time purchase of up to 100,000 doses of vaccine directly from Pfizer. The purchase, she said, will help make up a two-week lag in supply in the state. 

State health officials said Tuesday Michigan is expected to get 60,450 doses of the Pfizer vaccine this week. The state’s allocations of the Moderna vaccine are being transferred to CVS and Walgreens until the end of the month as part of the Federal Long Term Care Program to vaccinate people in long-term care facilities.

Duggan said Tuesday the federal government has "Botched this from the beginning," promising there would be "20 million vaccines by Dec. 31 and they got 3 million done."

The mayor said Whitmer believes that 20,000 doses over four weeks is the best guess for how many doses of the vaccine Detroit will be able to give.

"If the governor calls us next week and says 'Hey, the White House has released more' we'll book 30,000 appointments. But if she calls up and says 'Next week's number just got slashed in half' we might have to take some people and push them back a few days," Duggan said. "I want to get every single possible vaccine dose to Detroiters that we can get. The reality is, whoever is most prepared to give the vaccines will end up getting the larger number of doses."

The city's health department on Friday was set to begin vaccinating residents and staff at Boulevard Manor, the only nursing home in the city without an existing vaccination plan through a private provider. This week, the health office in partnership with Wayne State University Medical School's nursing and pharmacy students is slated to vaccinate residents at 60 city senior buildings and 29 homeless shelters. 

Denise Fair, the city's chief public health officer, said the health department will visit three homeless shelters and four senior apartment buildings on Wednesday to give out vaccines. 

"We are working really closely with the state to make sure that the vaccine is available for everyone who wants it," Fair said.

The city has estimated those vaccinations will be completed by the end of February. 

Detroit will pay $45,000 per month to rent the TCF Center garage, under a lease that will run for several months. 

As of Monday, Detroit has reported 27,002 confirmed cases of the virus and has logged 1,724 deaths. 

The city, in partnership with Henry Ford Health System, began deploying the first round of Moderna vaccines during the last week of December. First in line were 1,200 medical first responders who work for the Detroit Fire Department, 30 city health care workers so they can vaccinate others and 450 home health care workers.

To schedule appointments at the TCF Center garage, call (313) 230-0505.

cferretti@detroitnews.com