State Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, hosted a Washtenaw County town hall Thursday to update the community on COVID-19 vaccine rollout. He invited local health officials to speak on the progress they have made administering the COVID-19 vaccine, who can be vaccinated currently and how they plan to establish trust between vulnerable communities and health officials.

Irwin opened the panel by acknowledging the general confusion Washtenaw County citizens may be experiencing with regards to the vaccination process. He then introduced Dr. David Vandenberg, chief medical officer of St. Joseph Mercy Health System, to explain the stages in the vaccine distribution process. 

Vandeburg explained the Centers for Disease Control recommends vaccinating frontline health care workers and medical workers who support the frontline first. These individuals fall under Phase 1A of the vaccine distribution plan, and many health care providers have since moved onto Phase 1B. This group, which includes citizens over 65 years of age and essential workers, are the current focus of vaccination efforts. Vandenberg emphasized the need for collaborations between health institutions for vaccination efforts.

“We’re still in that effort (Phase 1B) and we will be probably for a few weeks,” Vandenberg said. “It’s clear to us that in our clinic, we can get up to 600-700 shots a day, but it’s going to be hard to get past that. We know that Washtenaw County Health Department has a vaccination center, and we’ve talked with them about collaborating to join forces and expand our capacity and try to get to 1,000, perhaps 2,000 doses a day.”

Dr. Jeff Desmond, chief medical officer at Michigan Medicine, emphasized Michigan Medicine’s huge capacity to administer vaccines. According to Desmond, Michigan Medicine can deliver 1,000 or more vaccines a day and have so far administered more than 41,000 doses. He said the small amount of vaccine that health care systems are currently receiving limits their ability to distribute it quickly.

“With this vaccine, there is great hope to eventually end the pandemic,” Desmond said. “With that said, it is going to (be) vaccine supply that makes the difference. We have been challenged, as have others across the state and across the country, with the availability of the vaccine.”

Dr. Dana Habers, chief department administrator of radiation at Michigan Medicine, urged citizens to utilize the patient portal on the Michigan Medicine website. She said patients can register over the phone and can expect to receive additional information about vaccine eligibility in the mail. A University of Michigan study found that older adults are less likely to use online patient portals, complicating vaccine distribution efforts to this crucial demographic.

Habers also reminded citizens of their civic responsibilities and encouraged them to continue practicing social distancing and following public health guidelines.

“Even though we are vaccinating and this is a very hopeful moment, I think that all of us are over it with the pandemic and ready to beat COVID as a community,” Habers said. “Until that time, and until we get further along in this process, I just want to continue to emphasize the importance of keeping yourselves safe and keeping others safe as well. Even those who have received the vaccine need to continue to practice social distancing, wear your masks, wash your hands often and follow CDC guidelines on gatherings.”

Charles Wilson, community health promotion supervisor at the county health department, emphasized the need for trusted sources of information and strong communication channels between local health providers and vulnerable communities. Wilson used the county health department’s Community Voices for Health Equity Team as an example of community members working with the county health department staff to spread information about the COVID-19 vaccine to communities in need. He also emphasized the need for COVID-19 testing pop-up locations in vulnerable communities.

“It is vitally important for us to partner with other organizations and also to be out in the community providing this much needed resource because it builds trust,” Wilson said. “I can’t overstate the importance of the idea that people in very vulnerable communities have to be able to trust us. And establishing a relationship where they live and providing something that they need helps do that.”

Daily Staff Reporter Vanessa Kiefer can be reached at vkiefer@umich.edu.

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