Biden trip to Michigan postponed to Friday due to snowstorm

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

The White House said it has postponed to Friday President Joe Biden's first trip to Michigan as president because of a snowstorm forecast for the Washington region on Thursday.

Biden was set to meet Thursday with Pfizer workers at the Portage facility that's manufacturing the company's COVID-19 vaccine.

Approaching his one-month mark in office, Biden is expected to further tout the progress his administration has made on expanding the supply of COVID vaccines after the roll-out faltered during the previous administration. 

At a CNN town hall in Milwaukee on Tuesday, Biden said there was only 50 million doses available when he was sworn into office last month. He now expects to have enough vaccine — 600 million doses — available to vaccinate every American by the end of July. That includes 300 million doses from Pfizer.

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President Joe Biden waves as he boards Air Force One at New Castle Airport in New Castle, Del., Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

"There was nothing in the refrigerator figuratively and literally speaking," Biden said at the town hall. "We've upped that in the first three weeks that we're in office to significantly more than that."

The change came after Biden's administration approached Pfizer and Moderna and urged them to produce more vaccine and more rapidly, he said, adding that his team did so by triggering the Defense Production Act of 1950. The law lets the government nationalize commercial production in emergency situations. 

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“We got them to move up time because we used the National Defense Act to be able to help the manufacturing piece of it — to get more equipment,” the president said Tuesday.

Biden last visited Michigan the weekend before the Nov. 3 election, when he made stops in Flint and Detroit. Biden won the state over former President Donald Trump 51% to 48%. 

The Michigan visit is consistent with Biden's agenda and tone, so far: Accessible and compassionate but also trying to temper expectations, said Karen Dumas, a political and communications consultant in Detroit. The vaccine roll-out is improving but still running into hiccups — from delays in manufacturing to winter storms slowing distribution. 

"They're getting the companies to accelerate manufacturing, but everything's only humanly and technologically possible. Those things still take time. Again, I think it's a kind of a means of reassurance," Dumas said of Biden.

"His visit here is also another nod to the state of Michigan and their role in his win. I think he will continue to be here more often than not."

The nation is on pace to exceed Biden’s stated goal of 100 million vaccine doses administered in his first 100 days in office.

Federal officials most recently boosted weekly allocations of vaccine doses to the states from 11 million doses last week to 13.5 million doses this week — contributing to a 57% jump in vaccine allocations in the first four weeks that Biden has been in office, White House COVID Coordinator Jeff Zients said during a Wednesday briefing.

A banner at the Pfizer plant thanking employees for their service and the vaccine they created for the masses in Portage on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021.

The administration also doubled the weekly vaccine supply to local pharmacies from 1 million to 2 million doses.

That has helped to increase the number of doses administered nationally from an average of 900,000 a day in mid-January to 1.7 million a day for the last week, according to the White House.

"While we've made a lot of progress, there is a long road ahead," Zients said.

In Michigan, 1.6 million doses of vaccine have been administered and reported to the state health agency, covering nearly 14% of the state population with at least one dose.

The state's top epidemiologist, Sarah Callo-Lyon, said Michigan ranks 15th in the nation for the number of people who are fully vaccinated, with roughly 500,000 people having received both shots of the two-dose vaccine.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer this month toured Pfizer's manufacturing campus in Portage, from which the first doses of the company's vaccine were shipped in mid-December. 

Whitmer said Wednesday she was looking forward to Michigan hosting the president and expressed gratitude that he has prioritized vaccine purchase and dissemination, noting the state has seen a ramping up in its allocation every week since Biden took office.

"I'm really glad that he's coming," Whitmer said Wednesday. "One of our proudest moments of the last year was watching those vaccines roll out of Portage."

She did not say at a Wednesday briefing whether she would join Biden for any part of his visit. But Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who this week expanded eligibility for vaccines to residents age 60 or older with chronic medical conditions, suggested Whitmer was going.

"I do Detroit. The governor does Kalamazoo," Duggan said with a smile.

But there are continuing complaints about limited vaccine supply, as well as equity — in particular why so many fewer individuals in communities of color nationally have received the vaccine. 

Michigan's largest hospital system, Beaumont Health, said Monday it had learned of an unexpected and "significant reduction in" the Pfizer vaccine inventory, forcing it to cancel 1,884 second-dose appointments scheduled for Thursday.

The Portage facility employs approximately 3,000 people and has employees working in three shifts, without stopping the production lines for breaks or holidays, so that the operation runs continuously, a spokesman said.

The company has added suppliers and contract manufacturers since December, improved production lines, doubled batch sizes and increased the yield per batch, according to the company. This includes expanding the supply of raw material from existing suppliers and bringing on new suppliers.

In addition to Pfizer's Portage site, the drug maker is producing the vaccine in St. Louis, Missouri, and Andover, Massachusetts.

Biden officials have blamed the inefficient vaccine roll-out by the Trump administration on an under-supply of vaccines themselves but also too few vaccinators and vaccine sites and little coordination with state and local officials.

"The American people need to know what we are digging out of," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said. 

To help boost the number of vaccinators, the White House signed an order to allow retired doctors and nurses to give shots and has deployed federal personnel and National Guard members to serve as vaccinators, in addition to activating over 1,000 members of the military to support community vaccination sites.

Zients said the administration is trying to address equity issues by partnering with states to increase vaccinations in the "hardest-hit and hardest-to-reach communities," in part by boosting supply to federally funded community health centers.

Dr. Tony Fauci, chief medical adviser to Biden, previously said the vaccine would be more widely available to the general population by the end of April, but that was predicated on a larger supply of vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, which has yet to receive emergency use authorization from the Food & Drug Administration. 

Empty vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are seen at a vaccination center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in Las Vegas.

Federal officials recently learned that Johnson & Johnson will only have a few million doses in its inventory to start with, so it's commitment to deliver 100 million doses by the end of June will be "back-end loaded," Zients said Wednesday.

"We're working with the company to do everything we can — assuming they are approved by the FDA — to bring forward as many of those doses as possible into the earlier months," he said.

Staff Writers Sarah Rahal, Karen Bouffard and Neal Rubin contributed.