Vaccine shortage slows effort to end pandemic
LANSING — If Michigan could administer 50,000 coronavirus vaccine doses a day, it could hit its goal of inoculating 70% of people age 16 and older by August.
At the current rate, about 29,000 per day, it would not finish until a year from now.
The issue is limited supplies — something Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and health officials hope can be addressed as new President Joe Biden takes the helm amid the largest vaccination effort in U.S. history and as more contagious virus variants spread.
“That’s our universal frustration,” the Democratic governor said. “We have the capacity and the plan to do a lot more vaccinations quicker. But the federal government … it’s been hard. They have not gotten us what we need.”
Whitmer said she is confident Michigan can do 50,000 vaccinations a day but is only getting about 60,000 doses a week of the Pfizer vaccine. The other COVID-19 vaccine, from Moderna, is going to residents and staff in long-term care facilities through a federal program. The state received permission to instead send 120,000 Moderna doses to hospitals and local health departments over this past week and the coming week.
Still, it is not enough. In the first six weeks of the monumental undertaking to inoculate 5.6 million residents, Michigan has gotten 182,000 doses a week on average — 52% of what is needed to inject 50,000 shots in arms per day. Both vaccines are designed to be given in two doses, three or four weeks apart.
In the last full week of President Donald Trump’s term, Whitmer asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for permission to buy 100,000 doses from Pfizer, which makes the vaccine at its plant in Portage. It was not clear if she will renew the request with the Biden administration. Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said Biden is implementing a “clear national strategy” to increase production of vaccine supplies, and the governor is talking with his administration on how best to proceed.
Whitmer said she hopes two additional vaccines, from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, are authorized soon.
“Everyone who wants a vaccine is going to get one,” she said. “Depending on how quickly we get those vaccines to the state, that’s what going to determine how quickly we’re going to be able to get to everyone.”
Biden wants 100 million doses administered in his first 100 days in office. Some experts say his administration should strive for two or three times that number.
After a bumpy start, Michigan is vaccinating more people per capita than many states are. Its rate was 18th-highest Saturday, a marked improvement from when it was seventh-lowest less than three weeks ago.
Hospitals and local health departments, which are administering vaccines, say the process is going more smoothly, but demand far outpaces supply. Transitioning from Phase 1A, which includes 800,000 health care workers and long-term care staff and residents, to the elderly and frontline essential workers like teachers made nearly 1.7 million more people eligible.
“The biggest issue right now is getting more vaccine into our state,” said Ruthanne Sudderth, senior vice president of public affairs and communications for the Michigan Health & Hospital Association. Health systems, especially large ones, could have a much higher ouput if they had more doses, she said.
Another problem is uncertainty over how many doses the U.S. government will give the state each week, which in turn creates unpredictability and timing issues for local entities trying to plan vaccine appointments.
In Wayne County, the state’s biggest, the health department is still working to vaccinate a growing list of 15,000 to 17,000 health workers. Others awaiting shots include 20,000 school employees and 2,000 law enforcement and corrections officers. The agency has gotten 13,300 doses to date.
“I have the capacity to do 5,000 a day. But if I only get 1,000 doses and I cannot do anything beyond that, it means now my schedule has to be bumped,” said Dr. Mouhanad Hammami, the county’s chief health strategist. “This is our main challenge. How do we maintain a steady frequency and a steady quantity of the vaccine?”
He said he realizes state officials are confronting the same weekly supply uncertainties, but it would be helpful to not have guesswork at the local level. Each Thursday, the county orders the maximum allowable amount from Pfizer: 4,875 doses.
The following Monday, it is told its weekly allotment. Once it was 975. Another week it was 1,950. Another time it was 2,925.
Receiving a steady amount “would make life much easier in terms of scheduling,” Hammami said. “We feel and we know how frustrating this is for every person that is out there. But we all are going to practice patience to its limits because each one of us is handling the same conditions of uncertainty. It is something that we have to still live through until there is a resolution.”