It'll be May, the state estimates, before Michigan can open up COVID-19 vaccines to the next wave of people. But if Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail could somehow get her hands on 83,000 doses of the vaccine – one for each of the county's currently eligible frontline workers, as well people older than 65 – she’s pretty sure she could get all those shots in arms in, say, three weeks.
“And then we would turn around and give everybody their second doses in the next three weeks,” Vail says, wearing a neon safety vest and standing in the middle of what is, essentially, a really big barn: the Michigan State University Pavilion for Agriculture and Livestock Education, which is currently serving as the county health department’s drive-in vaccination clinic.
“We would figure it out,” Vail says. “You'd have to open more sites. You'd have to operate more hours. The whole operation would just basically get amped up. Maybe it wouldn't be three weeks; maybe I'm being optimistic. But I think we could get things done relatively quickly. I don't think we would be waiting for long periods of time.”
The system they’ve built here has already ramped up quickly: from December 21 to January 6, the county clinic vaccinated some 3,000 healthcare workers. Now they’re doing that volume each week. But that’s a fraction of what they could be doing, Vail says. Right now, the site’s only open three days a week – after that, they run out of doses, and have to wait for the next week’s shipment to come in.
“We just don't have the vaccine supply,” she says. “So that's what keeps me up [at night.]”
Three thousand vaccines in three days
The long line of cars outside stretching past the snowy fields at the far end of MSU’s campus is an ever-present reminder of the demand. The massive site’s been host to everything from the Spartan Stampede Rodeo to white nationalist Richard Spencer’s controversial campus tour. Now it’s where 2,000 people will come this week to get their first doses of the vaccine; another thousand will be healthcare workers coming in for their second and final shot.
Over the weekend, the health department’s computer servers were overwhelmed when tens of thousands of newly-eligible people tried to sign up for appointments. In just five days, more than 12,000 people scheduled appointments, says department spokeswoman Amanda Darche. But that leaves thousands more trying to get into a clinic that, if vaccine supply doesn’t increase, is booked through February 24.
It’s staffed by a mix of uniformed National Guard members, health department staffers, volunteers, and local health care workers, moving from car to car, filling out paperwork, or passing out takeout sandwiches for lunch.
Every 15 minutes, burly guys wave another round of vehicles through the entrance, where traffic directors line the cars up in rows. Drivers park, and a staffer checks them in. Then the medical staff makes their way down each row, administering shots through the driver’s window. The drivers wait 15 minutes so staff can make sure they don’t have an allergic reaction.
Then a massive garage door opens at the far end of the pavilion, and a row of cars drives out into the winter sunlight, as another group pulls in behind them.
A “relief” for teachers going back to face-to-face instruction
Given the demand, the county health department is prioritizing appointments for a few key groups: mostly people age 70 and older, plus teachers and child care workers. High school teacher Patricia David says she’s amazed how quickly she was able to get in.
“Once the health department notified our superintendent, he notified us within half an hour, and we started signing up on the link,” she says. “It’s a relief. I think everyone will breathe a little easier, once we have something on our side.”
David’s district is one of the few in the county that’s meeting in-person; they resumed face-to-face instruction a couple weeks ago, she says.
“It’s actually really nice,” David says. “A lot of kids struggle online … and so now that they’re back face to face, a lot of kids are getting back on track and that’s nice to see. And that’s part of the reason why I teach: I like to interact with kids. It’s not all about typing on a keyboard. So I’m really happy to be back face to face, even though it’s a little scary, it’s a little nerve-wracking. But that’s what I signed up for. That’s my job.”
Her husband has health issues, she says, so she wanted to get vaccinated as soon as she could. As far as she’s heard from her coworkers, the rest of the teachers appear to be on board too.
“I didn’t hear a single one who was like, ‘No, I’m gonna wait.’ … And my thought was, if health care professionals, doctors and nurses, got it a few weeks ago, and they’re still all around, I think we can trust it for us,” David laughs.
Thousands still worried and waiting
If all goes according to the state’s plan, the bulk of this round of vaccinations – group “1B” on the state’s priority list – should be completed in about four months, with the next phase (people 16 to 64 years old with “COVID-19 risk factors/pre-existing conditions”) beginning in May.
Vail’s hopeful the pace will pick up: the county received twice as many doses this week as last. The federal government says it will start releasing the vaccine it was previously holding back to save for second doses. Governor Gretchen Whitmer says she’s also trying to buy 100,000 more doses from Pfizer directly.
In the meantime, the calls – and emails, and Facebook messages – keep flooding in.
“[They say] ‘I’m 90-something and I have this [health condition] and that and the other, and I don’t have my vaccine scheduled yet. When am I going to be able to?’ And that’s the stuff that keeps me up at night right now,” Vail says. “It’s knowing that we have people like that, out there, who are still waiting to get in.”
Detroit Free Press, Bridge Michigan and Michigan Radio have teamed up to report on Michigan hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic. If you work in a Michigan hospital, we would love to hear from you. You can contact Kristen Jordan Shamus at email@example.com, Robin Erb at firstname.lastname@example.org or Kate Wells at email@example.com.