Michigan ready to open COVID-19 vaccine to people over age 50

The state of Michigan is preparing to open COVID-19 vaccine availability to people older than 50 years old with health risks, such as preexisting conditions or disabilities, starting Monday.

People over the age of 50, regardless of health condition, will be eligible to begin receiving the vaccine starting March 22, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The state also will open eligibility, starting Monday, to caregiver families and guardians caring for children with special health needs. The expanded eligibility came as at least one Metro Detroit leader expressed skepticism that local health agencies and others could meet the demand.

“We want to be able to expand (distribution), and we’re in a position to do it,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday at an unrelated press conference in Dearborn.

“That’s great news and we’re going to be one of the first states in the nation to do it. That’s because we will have this many vaccines on hand.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday (March 3, 2021) after touring a bridge at Miller and Rotunda in Dearborn that the state is ready to expand distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to people 50 and over with disabilities or pre-existing conditions starting Monday, March 8.

But Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel is perturbed counties weren’t consulted before Whitmer made her announcement. The Democratic county leader said he doubts the state can provide enough doses to vaccinate people 50 and older and doesn't understand why state officials would expand the program before having more doses in hand. 

“We can handle any kind of demand she wants to create as long as there’s a supply, but unfortunately that’s not the case,” Hackel said Wednesday. “Saying we’re getting (increased doses) in May and then opening it up already to a greater demand in March … you’re creating a greater demand than you have a supply for.”

Macomb County, Michigan's third-most populous county, has been using some of its allotment to vaccinate residents of long-term care facilities who were not vaccinated by CVS or Walgreen’s pharmacies, he said. The county still has people in priority groups 1A and 1B who haven’t been vaccinated — health care workers and people 65 and older who are still in line, he said.

“Why the state does this is because the state doesn’t have to deal with scheduling appointments,” Hackel said. “They can go ahead and do anything they want. They don’t have to deliver.

“They’re forcing it upon the other outlets to deliver, and we’re the ones dealing with the concerns of many. It’s frustrating.”

Leaders in Oakland County, the state's second-most populous county, were more optimistic. Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter said the county's Health Division on Wednesday received 7,400 Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccines, which was 700 more doses than leaders expected.

“With the news that Merck is going to be joining with Johnson & Johnson to manufacture this one-dose vaccine, this increased supply of vaccine will help accelerate the end to the pandemic,” Coulter said in a statement. “We are making steady progress in vaccinating Oakland County residents with nearly one in five having received their first dose.”

Vaccine supply, shots

More than 2.3 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in Michigan through Sunday, including 1.4 million first doses, according to state data. That means about 800,000 Michiganians have been fully vaccinated.

The state is expected to receive its largest vaccine shipment this week — nearly 500,000 doses, including 82,700 doses of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine. Pfizer and Moderna manufacture two-shot vaccines.

"The significant increase in vaccine supply to our state this week is an encouraging sign that we will be able to vaccinate 70% of our adult population more quickly than originally planned," said Brian Peters, CEO of the Michigan Health & Hospital Association.

The state health department is making the move because the state will have a historic number of vaccine doses available in the next couple of weeks, Whitmer said. About 400,000 vaccine doses a week will come from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, she said.

Whitmer said she is encouraged the state has hit its goal of administering 50,000 daily vaccine doses for 16 days straight. "And with this additional vaccines, we could take it higher than that,” she said.

People eligible to receive the vaccine should check the websites of their hospital or health system, local health department or other vaccination sites, such as Meijer, Rite Aid or Cardinal Health in the Upper Peninsula. People who need assistance navigating the process can call (888) 535-6136 during business hours Monday through Friday, or 211 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. 

While the state has more vaccines than it once did, waitlists are still possible with the limited supply, officials warn.

Teachers assistant at the Berkley School District Sylvia Boyd of Detroit and gets her COVID-19 vaccine from Meijer pharmacist Brittany Wilkinson.  Meijer hosted a vaccine clinic at Ford Field exclusively for educators and education staff in Detroit on March 1, 2021.

Phil Peterson of Grand Blanc and his wife Jane, both 73, received their second doses of the Pfizer vaccine a week ago Tuesday — and Phil said he thinks there’s an element of luck involved in who ends up getting the shots. 

“I signed up on the Genesee County Health Department website, only to find out days later there were 20,000-plus people on that list,” Phil Peterson said. “So I said ‘I guess we’ll try Meijer,’ and Meijer was just surprising.

“I registered on a Thursday, and Friday my wife and I both got texts saying ‘pick a date,’ and boom — we were in. It was that quick. We just hit the right store at the right time.”

Having a cellphone also worked in the couple’s favor, Peterson added. But he noted some people, especially in the older age categories, might not be able to send and receive text messages.  

Fewer restrictions

The eligibility expansion comes as the Democratic governor has expressed more optimism about the state's fight against COVID-19. On Tuesday, Whitmer announced her administration had issued wide-ranging epidemic orders that would ease coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses, nursing homes and other gatherings.

The new policies will allow larger outdoor events to resume, double capacity limits at restaurants from 25% to 50% and move the curfew for indoor dining from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. starting on Friday and running through April 19.

The state health department is also relaxing capacity limits on retail stores, moving them from 30% to 50%. The limitation on indoor household gatherings will go from 10 people from two households to 15 people from three households. Those orders also take effect on Friday and run for six weeks.

The latest directives also allow family members who test negative for COVID-19 immediately to visit relatives in a nursing home as long as the facility has not had a new COVID-19 case in the last 14 days. The visitation order marks the first time since early in the pandemic that nursing homes across the state have been open for visits. Visitation allowances had previously depended on COVID-19 metrics showing low risk within a given county.

But the easing of restrictions came as certain COVID-19 metrics stopped showing improvement.

Hospitalizations are up 5% since last week, the first increase since December, according to the state health department. About 3.7% of tests are returning positive, a rate that has plateaued, said Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan's chief medical executive, this week.

As of Tuesday, Michigan has the second-highest number of cases of the virus variant B.1.1.7. with 437 cases — 300 cases are within the Michigan Department of Corrections. Florida has the most, 600 cases of the variant from the United Kingdom that is considered more contagious than the typical virus and potentially more deadly.

Whitmer in early January opened vaccinations to people older than 65 and other essential workers after the initial phase of distribution that focused on front-line health care workers and long-term care facility residents and workers. 

In February, the state allowed health providers with specific plans to remove socioeconomic barriers to the vaccine to begin requesting vaccine for people over the age of 60. The state also began to prioritize vaccines for mortuary workers and roughly 79,000 workers in food processing and agricultural settings. 

For the week ending March 1, 49% of residents 75 years old and up had received one dose while 24.5% had completed their vaccinations, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The one-dose rate dipped to 44% for those age 65-74 years old and 20% who had finished their two-shot vaccinations.

The rate for those 50-64 years old was 13% had received one dose, while about 8% had completed their two-dose vaccinations.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Sarah Rahal contributed.