• The Star Staff

Michigan governor presses for extra vaccine doses to fight virus surges

By Lucy Tompkins

With her state fighting a huge coronavirus surge, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Sunday renewed her appeal to the Biden administration to send the state much larger supplies of vaccine, an idea that the White House has rebuffed.

Michigan has recently become a major COVID hot spot in the United States. Average daily reports of new cases have risen sevenfold since a low point in February, and nine of the 10 American metropolitan areas with the most new cases per capita lately are in Michigan.

Hospitals are filling up.

Whitmer said on the CBS Sunday program “Face the Nation” that the White House should reconsider its refusal to alter its distribution plan — currently based strictly on population — so that localities that face flare-ups could get extra doses.

“When there’s a surge, we think that it’s important to rush in to meet where that need is,” she said. “Because what’s happening in Michigan today could be what’s happening in other states tomorrow, and so it’s on all of us to recognize that if we can squash where we’re seeing hot spots, it’s in everyone’s best interest.”

The Biden administration has promised to send Michigan extra resources to increase testing and to help the state administer its vaccine allotment faster. But White House COVID coordinator Jeff Zients on Friday said sending Michigan more than its current share of doses was not on the table.

“There are tens of millions of people across the country, in each and every state and county, who have not yet been vaccinated, and the fair and equitable way to distribute the vaccine is based on the adult population by state, tribe and territory,” Zients told reporters at a news briefing.

As vaccine supplies increase and states rapidly expand access, some, including Mississippi, are struggling to give out their allotment of doses, with large segments of their population hesitant to be vaccinated. Larry Brilliant, a public health researcher, said that if states have extra doses, they should be redistributed to wherever they’re needed most, such as Michigan right now.

“It’s very hard to rationalize excess vaccine in places that neither want it nor will use it and not sending it to places that desperately need it,” said Brilliant, who was part of the effort to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s.

Michigan has used 76% of its allotted doses so far, about average for the nation but well behind the most efficient states, including New Hampshire (92%) and Wisconsin (89%), according to a New York Times tracker. About 34% of Michigan’s population has received at least one dose so far, and 22% are fully vaccinated; both figures are close to the national average.

Whitmer said she was pleased with the new administration’s pandemic strategy overall, but she said she would continue to argue for extra vaccine supplies for hot spots. “It’s important to recognize where there might need to be some adjustments along the way,” she said.

Michigan still has a statewide mask mandate and capacity limits on restaurants and other businesses, measures that many other states have relaxed. But pandemic restrictions have been significant political flashpoints in the state, and Whitmer has not indicated she would try to tighten them as a response to the latest surge.

Instead, she has called for a voluntary two-week pause of in-person schooling and indoor dining to help slow the virus’ spread.

“We have variants, a big presence of variants here in Michigan that are easier to catch,” she said Sunday, referring mainly to the B.1.1.7. variant initially identified in Britain. “And people are tired, and they’re moving around more.”