Michigan: All adults eligible for vaccine April 5; appointments may take 'weeks'

Lansing — All Michigan residents age 16 and older are set to become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine on April 5, but state health officials warned Friday that appointments could some time to arrange.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services explained "it is anticipated that it may still take several weeks beyond April 5 for everyone who wishes to receive a vaccine to have an appointment."

The early April benchmark is almost a month before the May 1 date that President Joe Biden promised in a Thursday night address to the nation. 

People age 16 to 49 with certain medical conditions or disabilities will qualify for vaccinations starting March 22, when 50- to 64-year-olds can begin getting shots under a prior decision by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration.

State health officials last expanded eligibility on March 8 when the shots were made available to people 50 and older with medical conditions and people who care for children with special health care needs — a move that drew criticism by some providers who said they didn't have enough vaccine doses to meet the demand.

“The safe COVID-19 vaccine is the most effective way to protect you, your family and others from the virus," Whitmer said in a statement. “It will help the country get back to normal and help the economy.”

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, one of the most vocal critics of earlier expansions of vaccine eligibility, said he supports the April 5 opening now that a majority of the county’s 152,000 seniors have been vaccinated.

“My biggest complaint or concern early on was need to focus on the data and science, and people 60 and over are 90% of the deaths,” Hackel said. “We needed to get through that before we focus on who’s next.

“(Now) we have 61% of our senior population already trough this, which is a great thing."

Worries about high-risk groups

Some experts remain concerned about the number of unvaccinated higher-risk people. The state health department said Friday that providers are still encouraged to schedule appointments and allocate vaccinations to residents based on highest risk, including older residents, essential workers and front-line workers.

People who work in grocery stores, Uber drivers, restaurant servers and other essential workers not already vaccinated were to become eligible during Phase 1C of the state's vaccine distribution plan — before the vaccine becomes available to the general public.  People ages 18 through 64 who are at greater risk due to health conditions were also to be prioritized during this phase. 

Asked if there would still be a Phase 1C during which essential workers would be prioritized, state health department spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said "all Michiganders age 16 and older become eligible as of April 5. This would include grocery clerks."

"As providers are scheduling appointments, they should consider an individual’s risk of exposure due to their employment and their vulnerability to severe disease in determining how to schedule appointments," Sutfin added. 

"It is anticipated that it may still take several weeks beyond April 5 for everyone who wishes to receive a vaccine to have an appointment."

Dr. Nigel Paneth, a professor of epidemiology, biostatistics and pediatrics at Michigan State University, said there should be no impediment to opening the vaccine to the general public so long as high risk groups are vaccinated by April 5. 

Paneth has been advocating for developmentally disable individuals to be next in line for the injections — and he hopes the March 22 window will ensure they are prioritized before the door is thrown wide open April  5. 

“The developmentally disabled are a high-risk group and so far the only component of that they’ve accepted are kids with Down syndrome,” he said. 

Asked about the state's insistence that primary care providers are in the best position to prioritize people at greater risk from the virus, Paneth noted these doctors typically aren't the people doling out the vaccine. 

The vaccine is largely administered by hospitals, health departments and pharmacies that usually don’t know enough of a patient’s health history to make the call on whether they should get priority, he said. Unless providers seek out high-risk individuals, Michigan's doses likely will go into the arms of its most aggressive and resourced residents, he added.

“I just worry people might be left behind,” Paneth said.

Ford Field aids efforts

Ford Field will play a part in vaccinating adults in Metro Detroit starting on March 24 by administering an additional 6,000 doses a day for two months, the Biden administration announced Friday. The football stadium, home to the Detroit Lions, most recently served as a vaccine site run by Meijer, vaccinating Michigan educators and educational staff at a two-day clinic last week.

The site, supported by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will vaccinate 6,000 people a day, said Andy Slavitt, senior White House adviser for COVID response, at a Friday briefing.

The site will serve residents in the broader southeast Michigan area and is expected to administer 5,000 shots day on site and an additional 1,000 day through a mobile option.

FEMA has obligated over $27.5 million and deployed more than 25 federal personnel to Michigan to support vaccination operations statewide, the White House said.

The site will be open 8 a.m.-8:30 p.m., seven days a week for eight weeks under the federal government's vaccination pilot program. 

The Ford Field site is not taking reservations yet, but Whitmer's office said instructions on how to book an appointment will be announced in the next few days.

But for vaccination appointments in general, the state health department gave this advice:

  • Check the website of a local hospital or local health department to find out their vaccine registration process or where to find registration forms.
  • Check with local pharmacies such as Meijer, Rite Aid, Wal-Mart, or Cardinal Health in the Upper Peninsula, about appointments.
  • Residents without access to the internet or who need assistance can call the COVID-19 Hotline at 888-535-6136 (press 1), Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. or can call 2-1-1. 

In west Michigan, Spectrum Health leaders are encouraging residents to register for a shot through spectrumhealth.org, even if they won’t be eligible for vaccination for several weeks. Spectrum Health, which has been partnering with Mercy Health and the Kent County Health Department, will reach out to registered individuals once their category is eligible and vaccine is available, said Chad Tuttle, senior vice president of hospital operations for Spectrum Health.

The registry currently has about 100,000 people on the registry list, but officials hope to increase it to 900,000 over the coming weeks.

The state’s opening of the vaccine to the general public signals a confidence in supply, something that has been echoed in phone calls with state and federal officials, Tuttle said.

“What we’re hearing is that the vaccine supply is about to explode,” he said.

On Thursday, west Michigan officials vaccinated 8,000 people in eight hours at the area’s mass vaccination site, DeVos Place in Grand Rapids. Tuttle said officials hope to increase vaccinations to 20,000 in a 14-hour day.

It's great that more people will be eligible for the vaccine — as long as the supply can keep pace with increased demand that will occur as more people become eligible for the shots, said Enrique W. Neblett Jr., a professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan.

"Failure to meet the additional demand could lead to confusion and mistrust," Neblett said.

The United States is expecting to have enough doses for adults by the end of May, but Biden has warned the process of actually administering those doses will take time. As of Wednesday, about 22% of Michigan's 16-plus population had been fully or partially vaccinated.

kbouffard@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.