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State opens vaccinations to people over 65, front-line essential workers

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The state will open up vaccination opportunities to all Michigan residents over the age of 65 and to front-line workers and teachers beginning Jan. 11, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Wednesday. 

The new phase will allow for the 65 and older age group, who have comprised 80% of COVID-19 deaths in Michigan, to receive a vaccine as well as front-line workers such as first responders, front-line state and federal workers and jail and prison staff. 

Pre-K through 12th-grade teachers and childcare providers also will be eligible for vaccinations. 

Whitmer urged all seniors over the age of 65 to set up an appointment to get vaccinated through their local health department or clinic, noting "every shot in the arm is a step closer to ending this pandemic." 

"We’ve never experienced anything of this magnitude, never in our lifetimes, not as a state, not as a nation," Whitmer said. "But I’m confident we are up to this task.”

The change in policy allows all counties to begin vaccinating those groups immediately and encourages people over the age of 65 to find local health departments or clinics giving the vaccine at Michigan.gov/COVIDVaccine. 

Essential workers will be notified by employers of their eligibility and where they can get a vaccine with an appointment.

"The strategy we are announcing today is efficient, effective, and equitable, focusing on making vaccine available to those who have the highest level of risk, whether it is because of where they work or because of their age," Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said. 

Whitmer warned the state had a limited supply replenished each week and residents shouldn't be concerned if it's initially difficult to make an appointment. The demand for the vaccine is a good sign, she said. 

"We have a limited supply so running out on a regular basis would be a good thing," she said.

The vaccines will be distributed to the new groups while still completing vaccinations among health care workers and in skilled nursing homes in the initial vaccination group, Khaldun said. 

Whitmer pushed back on CDC information listing Michigan as having the sixth-worst COVID-19 vaccination rate in the country. The state has spoken with the CDC and confirmed the federal information is not current with the state's, she said.  

Whitmer said the federal government's distribution of the vaccine has made it difficult to make plans to administer the vaccine. When pressed about the state's responsibility for the delay, she said what "appears to be a simple math problem is a lot more complicated than that." 

The state reported administering a total of about 152,000 vaccine doses, Whitmer said.A total of 520,000 vaccines have been distributed to hospitals and health departments as of Monday, meaning most of those are sitting on ice.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan's Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun announced Wednesday the state is moving to a new phase of vaccination on Monday when Michiganians over age 65 and some front-line essential workers can receive vaccines.

The state has instructed hospitals and health departments that Michigan's goal is to distribute 90% of its vaccines within seven days.

Whitmer said Wednesday that Michigan ranked in the top five states for the percentage of people vaccinated. But the governor's Department of Health and Human Services later clarified in a statement that the state ranked 11th for the number of first doses administered. 

When the rate of administered first doses of the vaccine per 100,000 people is considered, Michigan ranks as the 11th worst in the nation, with roughly 1,249 vaccines administered per 100,000 people, according to CDC data.

Both rankings were based on CDC data that listed Michigan as having administered only 124,689 first doses of the vaccine, not 152,000, due to a lag in new data being posted on the CDC site, the state said.

The Michigan State Medical Society said Wednesday the state's push to increase vaccinations comes as some independently practicing physicians and staff, including primary care physicians, have not had access to the vaccine. 

"These physicians and their staffs have been left out of the initial distribution plan," said Julie Novak, CEO of the Michigan State Medical Society. "In order to protect frontline health care workers and increase access to the COVID-19 vaccination for everyone in a timely manner, this needs to change.”

Khaldun said Wednesday health departments recently were told to push the vaccine out to local health care workers who may not have access to it through a hospital.

Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart applauded the decision to open vaccinations to teachers.

"Ensuring our front-line teachers and education support professionals can be vaccinated to protect themselves, their families, and their students is a key step in safely returning to in-person instruction," Herbart said.

Officials have said the vaccination rate will increase as those who have already been vaccinated report no or minimal side effects. They also have speculated that some people eligible for the vaccination delayed it until after the holiday season. 

Whitmer's press conference comes a little more than a week before an epidemic order closing restaurants to indoor dining is set to expire. The restrictions were put in place Nov. 18. 

Since the restrictions were put in place, some of the metrics governing closures — such as test positivity rate, cases, hospitalizations and deaths — have declined.

Whitmer said Wednesday the state will be monitoring COVID-19 metrics in the coming days. 

The state needs "more days of data before a determination is made on what the next steps look like," Whitmer said.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com