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One year ago, this doctor got Michigan's first COVID-19 shot. Now he's treating a surge of unvaccinated COVID patients.

man receives a COVID-19 vaccine shot in his right arm
Spectrum Health
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Dr. Mark McClelland receives Michigan's first COVID-19 vaccine dose delivered outside of clinical trials in December 2020.

One year ago, Dr. Marc McClelland got a call to come into work on his day off. He didn’t hesitate. He arrived at Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids, and walked into an ordinary conference room on the first floor.

McClelland is a pulmonologist, and he’d been treating COVID-19 patients inside Spectrum Health’s hospitals in Grand Rapids through a brutal surge of the virus, the worst the region had seen up until that point. But when he arrived in the conference room on Dec. 14, 2020, it wasn’t to work another shift. It was to get a dose of hope.

At 12:04 p.m., he became the first person in Michigan to receive a COVID-19 vaccine outside of a clinical trial.

“It was quite a magic moment,” he says now.

“It was quite a magic moment."
Dr. Marc McClelland, on receiving Michigan's first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on December 14, 2020.

Across Michigan that day, and across the country, there was a feeling that the pandemic could soon be tamed. An end was possible.

For McClelland and his colleagues, it couldn’t come soon enough.

“We were tired. There was a collective sense of fatigue, among all of us who do this,” Dr. McClelland said. “And a great sense of hope at the time that, sort of, that might be the last … wave like that.”

Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian also had hope. Bagdasarian, now Michigan's chief medical executive, was at that time working on improving the state’s COVID testing capabilities. As the vaccine started to become available to more people in the state, Bagdasarian said the numbers of people getting shots seemed good.

“Our vaccine uptake rates were actually very good initially,” she said, “and we made slow and steady progress.”

The state endured another aggressive wave of the virus in the spring, before most people in the state had a chance to get fully vaccinated, but it was later in the summer when Bagdasarian said she noticed vaccination rates beginning to slow down.

“I think that’s when it really became apparent that uptake wasn’t evenly distributed across the state, and that we were going to have a hard time controlling transmission as a result,” she said.

As of this week, the state of Michigan reports 5,326,658 people in the state are fully vaccinated — a massive number in just 12 months. But that number represents less than 57% of the eligible population statewide. In some parts of the state, the vaccination rate is even lower. And now, exactly one year after vaccines became available in Michigan, the state has more people in the hospital with COVID-19 than ever before. The vast majority of them are unvaccinated, according to data provided by the state and individual hospital system.

“I never thought that we would be here right now,” said McClelland, who once again is spending most of his time treating COVID-19 patients inside Spectrum Health’s ICUs in Grand Rapids.

“This current peak has been by far the hardest for me, and really for all of us in health care,” McClelland said.

"I think it’s particularly frustrating to health care workers to take care of so many individuals that are unvaccinated, who don’t believe the science behind vaccination and are now causing such burden to hospital systems.”
Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, chief medical executive for the state of Michigan.

Bagdasarian said the phrase she hears from medical workers on the front lines is “compassion fatigue.”

“Our role is to provide care for everyone, regardless of previous choices that have been made,” she said. “But where we are in the pandemic, I think it’s particularly frustrating to health-care workers to take care of so many individuals that are unvaccinated, who don’t believe the science behind vaccination and are now causing such burden to hospital systems.”

In recent weeks, leaders at hospitals and health departments around the state have pleaded with people in their communities to get vaccinated and take extra precautions to stop the spread of the virus. But not everyone has been listening.

McClelland said he doesn’t get frustrated with patients who refused a vaccine and ended up in the ICU.

“They’re still people,” he said. "What gets hard about it is it’s just, I just find it tragic. The vast, vast majority of patients who we’re seeing in the ICU, who we’re seeing on ventilators, are unvaccinated.”

Spectrum Health reports 90% of the patients in its ICUs are unvaccinated.

Over the past week, it seems the number of new confirmed cases of COVID-19 has stopped spiking.

But Bagdasarian, the state’s top doctor, said it’s too soon to be optimistic about that pause. The virus continues to spread widely in communities, and the appearance of the new omicron variant in Michigan creates uncertainty about what may come next.

Bagdasarian said she’s sure the state won’t completely be done with COVID without more vaccinations and boosters, and making a difference in vaccination numbers is going to require more than just doctors and public health professionals. It will take everyone talking to those closest to them, she said. Then, maybe this time next year, COVID will be far less of a concern.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.