Michigan Senate panel aims to block vaccine allocations based on race

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services would not be allowed to use race, gender or "socioeconomic factors" in deciding how to distribute COVID-19 vaccines under a proposal approved Wednesday by a state Senate committee.

The Appropriations Committee voted 11-6 to include the restriction in a $727 million supplemental spending bill that primarily allocates federal relief funding for vaccine distribution, testing and emergency rental assistance.

The committee also approved a $1.2 billion spending bill that would shell out federal relief funds for schools and a $593 million bill that would create a property tax relief program and deposit $150 million in the state's Unemployment Compensation Fund.

Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte

However, the most intense debate occurred over the vaccine distribution policy.

Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, proposed an amendment that says the health department can only use "the estimated number of individuals in each eligible priority group" in distributing vaccine doses to local agencies across the state.

His amendment would specifically bar the department from using race, gender, color, national origin, religion, sex or socioeconomic status" as factors in the decisions.

The priority groups generally focus on age, job or health care status, such as long-term care residents who were among the first to have access to the vaccine.

But the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has also been using a "social vulnerability index" from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to "adjust the allocations of vaccine to ensure that communities at most risk receive vaccine during times of scarcity," said Lynn Sutfin, the department's spokeswoman.

The index includes indicators of socioeconomic status, household composition and disability, minority status and language spoken and housing type and transportation.

"The social vulnerability index is a tool that uses Census data to identify and map places where a community may have more difficulty preventing human suffering and financial loss in a disaster," Sutfin said. "This is important in responding to incidents in an equitable way."

But during Wednesday's committee meeting, Barrett contended that the decisions should have a "scientific basis" instead of using a "social justice platform."

Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, countered that there's been a national push to get the vaccine to communities disproportionately hit by COVID-19. Communities of color have been subject to health care experiments in the past and have hesitations about getting the vaccines, Santana said.

"I think we need to be very cautious about how we present information in this body and also making sure we're not disproportionately impacting communities of color," Santana said.

The state Department of Health and Human Services released Tuesday a breakdown by race of individuals who have received the COVID-19 vaccine in Michigan. As of Monday, 1.2 million residents had gotten at least one dose of the vaccine. The state had race information for only a slight majority of the recipients.

While race was unknown for 43.7% of those vaccinated, 41.7% of the recipients were white, 9.5% were listed as "other," 3.7% were Black, 1.1% were Asian or Pacific Islander and 0.3% were American Indian or Alaskan Native. Statewide, 79% of Michigan's population is white, 14% is Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, said Barrett's amendment was "life and death."

"We're talking about life and death today, not testing that was done, unfortunately, 40 years ago," Runestad said.

The question is who is the most likely to die because of the virus, he argued, referencing the number of older individuals who have passed away. About 73% of the state's COVID-19 deaths are individuals who are over 70.

"I don't care what race they are," Runestad said. "I don't care what ethnicity they are. I don't care what language they speak. These are the people who are vulnerable to die."

Sens. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, and Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, said race, color and socioeconomic status have affected who dies from the virus. Wayne County, the state's most diverse county, has had the most deaths linked to the virus: 3,907, 25% of the state's total.

Lawmakers should leave decisions about vaccine distribution to experts, Hollier contended. Plus, Hertel said the federal government will give fewer vaccines to states that do not have an equity plan.

"That's the effect of this amendment: We will get less vaccines in Michigan," Hertel said.

The amendment was adopted by the committee with 11 Republicans in support and six Democrats in opposition. Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, didn't vote on the amendment.

The amendment was part of the new Senate package aimed at spending about $1.6 billion in federal relief funding. The bills could be taken up by the full Senate on Thursday.

Whitmer released her $5.6 billion "Michigan COVID Recovery Plan" on Jan. 19, 36 days ago. Her proposal featured $2 billion for schools, $225 million for economic development programs, $90 million for vaccine distribution and $575 million to expand COVID-19 testing, tracing and lab capacity.

But, so far, Republican lawmakers have left the Democratic governor on the sidelines as they've negotiated their own relief plan. The current Senate plan, which differs from the House proposal, includes $1.2 billion overall for schools, $110 million for vaccine distribution, $184 million for COVID-19 testing and $282 million emergency rental assistance.

The proposal also features $150 million to maintain and increase hazard pay for direct care workers. Currently, the hazard pay is $2 an hour. The Senate plan would move it $2.25 an hour

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland, said the Senate's plan was smaller than Whitmer's because the Senate wants to ensure that the Legislature continues to have oversight of the funds and is able to pursue its priorities.

On Tuesday, Doug Massaron, Whitmer's budget director, sent a letter to Stamas and House Appropriations Chairman Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, saying it was "unfortunate that we have not yet met to discuss and reach agreement on the distribution of these funds."

"I am writing to express my concern regarding the appropriation of COVID-19 relief funds," Massaron wrote. "If there was ever a time to set aside partisanship, appropriating federal resources for COVID-19 recovery should be that time."

Hertel, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said there had been no negotiations up to this point to make the Legislature's plan a bipartisan proposal.

Hertel stressed the importance of authorizing the vaccine money quickly. Getting shots in arms is the most important thing, Hertel said of the supplemental's potential initiatives.

On Feb. 4, the state House approved a $3.5 billion spending plan that would tie $2.1 billion in education funding to conditions that move power over school closures and student sports from the governor to local health officials. 

Albert said Wednesday that the House and Senate are moving as "fast as we can."

"This is what the normal legislative process is," Albert added. "This is the way that legislation should work. There should be dialogue between two different chambers. And hopefully, we'll have an agreement soon."