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Vaccine demand by seniors overwhelms Michigan hospitals, health departments

Sarah Rahal Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Intensifying demand for COVID-19 vaccines caused the website of Michigan's largest hospital system to crash Friday, and officials in Oakland and Macomb counties made public appeals to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for more doses, one of which included a video of empty freezers.

Whitmer said Wednesday Michigan will make vaccines available to everyone older than age 65 beginning Monday. 

The governor's announcement unleashed a torrent of pent-up demand from the over-65 group, which is at elevated risk of becoming seriously ill from the potentially deadly virus. But excitement quickly gave way to frustration later this week as people searched in vain for a way to access the vaccine.

Dave George, 71, sits in his Southgate condo on Friday. George, who suffers from COPD, said he's frustrated after trying and failing to get information on where he can get the COVID-19 vaccination.

After hours of searching the internet and making phone calls, Dave George of Southgate was one of many seniors trying and failing to determine where to get the vaccine.

"I'm 71 years old, and I have some underlying conditions — and I cannot find anybody at the state, or at Walgreen's or any place that knows anything about any scheduling for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine," George said Friday.

His effort comes as county health departments across Michigan have posted notices on their websites that appointments were limited or simply not yet available.

"I certainly hope the state doesn't screw this up 'cause it means a lot to me," George said. "I'm appalled at how little response or little answers I'm getting from the state of Michigan, and I'm scared to death."

At a press conference Friday, Whitmer urged the Trump administration to send more vaccine. Michigan had received 725,850 doses of COVID-19 vaccine as of Friday and had administered 195,240 doses, or nearly 27%, according to the latest figures from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Lynn Sutfin, a spokeswoman for the state health department, referred people to a page on the department's website that lists locations where people can be vaccinated.

"For now, we are asking them to visit Coronavirus - Vaccine Locations (michigan.gov) for this information. If their health department is listed, they should click the link and then follow the instructions on that site. We will be providing additional options next week," Sutfin said.

At the bottom of the webpage is a banner that says "Local Health Department Vaccine Information," and under that is a note that says "If your local health department is not named below, then there are not yet appointments available. You can check back tomorrow."

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel shows off empty vaccine freezers on Jan. 8, 2021.

As of Friday, only two health departments were listed: Ingham County and LMAS District Health Department, which serves Luce, Mackinac, Alger and Schoolcraft counties in the Upper Peninsula.

Calls and emails from The Detroit News to both health departments were not returned Friday.

Macomb and Oakland counties updated notices on their websites Friday explaining there are no available vaccine appointments available and further appointments will be based on the supply of vaccines received from the state.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel issued a video statement Friday showing there are no vaccines available in the county’s five freezers. He said although an estimated 300,000 people now qualify to be vaccinated beginning Monday, the county has only been given 1,000 doses.

"In an hour, we filled up all the spots for all those vaccines," he said. "There is no more vaccines in Macomb County to give. The governor over-promised something that health departments around the state cannot deliver. ... It's almost an impossibility."

Washtenaw County is urging residents to “please be patient. It may take weeks or months to move through each phase, depending on vaccine supplies and staffing capacity. We are working as fast as possible," according to a posting on the county website.

Gary Kapanowski, 52, of Warren, attempted to schedule a vaccination for his 86-year-old mother. He searched state websites, made multiple phone calls and shot off emails, before finally hearing back from Macomb County Health Officer Bill Ridella.

Ridella gave Kapanowski a number to call on Tuesday when vaccine appointments might open up. 

Kapanowski, who teaches continuous improvement at Lawrence Technological University, said it shouldn't be this hard to schedule an appointment. Developing the vaccine was supposed to be the hardest part; getting it into people should be easier.

"It's very disturbing and disheartening to know we had 10-plus months to work on a vaccine distribution from the states to the arms of the people, and it appears that nothing was really accomplished," Kapanowski said. "Nothing like hitting a home run, and then refusing to touch home plate at the end and saying it's someone else’s fault."

Christine Davis, 73, from Pinckney said after watching Whitmer’s announcement she immediately went online and began calling Ingham County's health department and LMAS in the U.P.

"One didn't know what I was talking about and the others started laughing, saying, 'We've only received 1,800 doses. We haven't been able to vaccinate all medical personnel so there's no way we're going to make an appointment if we don't even know if we'll have vaccines,'" Davis said. "I was especially disappointed when they told me 'Will you please tell your friends not to call us.'"

Davis is a retired nurse who typically spends her winters in Florida but stayed in Michigan to care for her grandchildren who are attending school virtually in Pinckney.

"Should they have to attend in-person, we'll have to leave them because we can't afford to be exposed," she said. "As a nurse, I believe in the science and have supported Whitmer all the way until this."

Flooded with requests

A health care worker receives a second Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shot at Beaumont Health in Southfield, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021.

Beaumont Health's online appointment system crashed Friday due to an overwhelming demand for COVID-19 vaccines, officials said. Southfield-based Beaumont said it now has the capacity to vaccinate more than 3,200 people each day and "we plan to expand to additional sites soon," an email to patients said.

The state's largest hospital system received 12,000 doses this week and expects to receive 6,800 additional doses of the vaccine next week,spokesman Bob Ortlieb said.

In the past three weeks, Beaumont has administered more than 18,500 initial doses in a health system with 38,000 employees and 5,000 doctors, and 1,553 workers are fully vaccinated as of Friday.

"We are encouraged by the overwhelming response. ... Our IT team is aware of connectivity issues with myBeaumontChart, and they are working diligently to address them," Beaumont officials said.

"Beaumont is not accepting walk-ins for either scheduling or vaccinations. Additionally, because of the overwhelming demand, we currently do not have the capacity to handle phone inquiries, which is why we’re asking people to use our website for the most up-to-date information."

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.

So far, more than 18,000 Henry Ford employees have either received or are scheduled to receive the vaccine — more than 60% of its workforce. About 7,100 employees declined to be vaccinated.

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is prepared in a syringe before a second round of vaccinations were administered at Beaumont Health in Southfield, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021.

The Detroit-based health system is also working with community partners to provide vaccinations for an expanded group of essential workers.

"We expect to begin providing vaccinations as early as Monday at one Detroit site, with plans to open additional sites by the end of next week," Gillespie said. "We will soon be reaching out proactively to our eligible patients to provide resources to help them make an informed decision, as well as encourage them to sign up for a MyChart account if they don’t already have one, for convenient online scheduling when appointments become available."

Meanwhile, Michigan Medicine and St. Joseph Mercy hospitals plan to contact their senior patients on Monday to schedule vaccination appointments. 

As the state on Friday reached 516,000 confirmed cases, resulting in more than 13,100 deaths, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, said the state has reached another "pivotal moment" in its fight against COVID-19.

Khaldun said she was concerned about gatherings that occurred over the holidays and a new variant of COVID-19 that has been reported in several U.S. states. 

"Our metrics overall tell me that we are at a pivotal moment. The declines that we were seeing prior to the holidays seem to be reversing," Khaldun said during a Friday press conference in Lansing.

Last week, Michigan reported that 9.5% of its coronavirus tests brought positive results, the first week in a month that the rate increased.

At a Wednesday afternoon press briefing, Khaldun said she'd spoken with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just moments before and was told that the state ranked fifth best in the country for the number of vaccines administered. But that ranking wasn't borne out in the numbers posted by the CDC Wednesday night.

► More:Feds rank Michigan low in COVID-19 vaccination rates

According to the CDC’s vaccine tracker, Michigan has received 662,450 doses of vaccine and administered 137,887 as of Thursday.

Khaldun, who also serves as Henry Ford's emergency medicine physician, received her second shot of the Pfizer vaccine Thursday, saying: “Once you get that second shot, it is 95% effective. I understand that some people may have questions about the vaccine, and that’s OK. But I want to say that this vaccine is safe, it's effective and it’s the way we are going to save lives, and it's important that health care workers get this vaccine.”

Whitmer said Friday a group of governors sent a letter to President Donald Trump’s administration, asking officials to distribute “millions of safe and effective” doses of the vaccine that are being held back. 

President-elect Joe Biden's administration has announced it will release all the available doses, Whitmer said, but she added she’s “hopeful” the Trump administration will do it sooner. Biden’s inauguration is Jan. 20. 

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

kbouffard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @kbouffardDN

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed.