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Rural health departments ready to “shift on the fly” through vaccine rollout

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From southwest Michigan to the Upper Peninsula, rural health departments are warning residents of a “severely limited” vaccine supply, “a high volume of calls,” and “full capacity for our clinics.”

What that's meant for Steve Hall, health officer at the Central Michigan District Health Department, is having to continually “shift on the fly.”

For example, when Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced that residents 65 and older would become eligible to get their shots, Hall learned that his department would stop receiving Moderna shipments.

So, he put in an order for Pfizer doses, but without having secured access to the necessary cold freezer storage.

“Thankfully we have a great relationship with [Central Michigan University] and they offered up [their ultra-cold freezer], so we certainly took them up on that offer,” he said.

Other rural health officials agree that being responsive and looking for local support will guide them though the uncertainty.

"What we know best in public health is that we’re always pivoting,” said Danielle Persky, deputy health officer for the Van Buren/Cass District Health Department.

Department staff traveled individually to health providers during the first vaccination phase, but intend to establish more permanent sites as they start vaccinating essential workers.

The department has also tasked the local Area Agency on Aging with helping adults older than 65 register with the system so they can eventually make an appointment to get their first shot.

District Health Department #10, the most geographically extensive in the state, told community members in a recent email update that it was working with its local Area Agency on Aging in the same capacity, to get older adults on its waiting list.

As the department noted in a prior update, “all clinics are full for the week of January 18.”

Marcus Cheatham, health officer of the Mid-Michigan District Health Department, emphasized in an email to Michigan Radio that while local health departments may be harried, they’re not the only providers administering vaccines.

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, 1,615 providers were enrolled statewide to put shots in arms as of January 17.

“Everyone thinks it is just the health department,” he wrote, “and that is so wrong.”

And though the situation is overwhelming staff, and frustrating people who want the vaccine, rural health officials say the high demand is, ultimately, encouraging.

“Initially, we were worried about not having enough people wanting the vaccine,” said Dr. Mark Hamed, the medical director for District Health Department #2 and a number of other rural health departments in Michigan.

“Now, I think a lot of them believe in the vaccine, they believe in getting back to normal, so we’re seeing a lot more takers.”

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Will Callan, a reporter for Michigan Radio, hails from the Bay Area, where he lived in Oakland and San Francisco and reported for local newspapers and magazines. He enjoys a long swim in chilly water (preferably followed by a sauna) and getting to know new cities. That's one reason he's excited to be in Ann Arbor, which he can already tell has just the right combo of urban grit and natural beauty to make him feel at home.
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