COVID-19 Town Hall with Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun | Michigan’s Plan to Administer the COVID-19 Vaccine

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Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy director for health for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) joined Tammy Carnrike, chief operating officer of the Detroit Regional Chamber, to discuss the state’s plan to administer the COVID-19 vaccination and share insight on the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.

COVID-19 Case Numbers

Though COVID-19 persists across the state, case numbers and percentage of positive tests continue to decline. However, a new, more easily transmitted variant of the virus, B.1.1.7 has gained some momentum.

“We’ve seen outbreaks across the state with this virus,” said Khaldun. “It’s really, really important that we continue to be cautious as we move forward with fighting this pandemic.”

Vaccine Efficacy and Availability

Currently, there are two vaccines available: a Pfizer vaccine and a Moderna vaccine. Though the vaccines quickly became available at the end of 2020, the technology isn’t new. Both vaccines were created using messenger RNA that gives your body the blueprint for creating antibodies to respond to the real virus.

“We know from the CDC who looks at data from people who have been vaccinated…that the vaccines are safe and effective. And so, that is really, really important. There were no steps that were skipped in the vaccine approval process,” said Khaldun. “So, it’s a good idea for people to get the vaccine when it becomes available to them.”

Vaccine Hurdles

Since beginning vaccination efforts in December, over 25% of people over the age of 65 in Michigan have been vaccinated, with roughly 1.7 million doses of the vaccine distributed throughout the state.

Right now, the issue the state is facing is limited supply, which means the distribution must be very strategic. Michigan is following CDC guidance when it comes to vaccine prioritization, with the current priority being people over the age of 65 and frontline workers, including health care workers, police officers, firefighters, and K-12 teachers.

“Every dose that is distributed across the state is either in an arm or it is scheduled to be in an arm,” said Khaldun. “As we get more vaccine into the state, we will be looking to expand the eligibility group as much as we can.”

How to Know When Eligible

As more of the population becomes eligible, the MDHHS will continue to put out press releases and announce updates on their website. In addition, local health departments provide their own updates as vaccine eligibility changes.

Right now, vaccine distribution is primarily facilitated by local health departments and health care systems.

Bias in the Health Care System

In November, the Chamber did a statewide poll of registered voters and found that 57.8% of white voters plan to get the vaccine, while only 32.9% of Black voters plan to get the vaccine.

As Khaldun noted, there are some minority communities that have skepticism when it comes to vaccines and the health care system.

“There’s been clear, documented mistreatment of Black and brown communities by the health care system, that’s been often intentional, and there’s still bias that exists in the health care system,” said Khaldun. “And I think that’s partly why a lot of people are hesitant to get the vaccine.”

The state is aware of the hesitancy and have turned to the help of community, faith-based, and fraternal organizations to get people the information they need from trusted sources. The MDHHS is emphasizing the need to bring the vaccines into the communities where people live to make vaccination and medical care more accessible.

Racial Disparities and COVID-19 Numbers

Throughout the last year, COVID-19 has highlighted several racial disparities and inequities, when it comes to case numbers and deaths.

“African Americans make up 14% of Michigan’s population. They were 32% of cases and 40% of deaths. And we were able to, by being very intentional and strategic, essentially eliminate the Black-white disparity when it comes to cases and deaths,” said Khaldun.

The state worked to eliminate the disparity by engaging with communities directly, providing 6 million free masks to communities across the state, and making testing more accessible by bringing testing resources into neighborhoods.

And Khaldun’s equity work does not stop at the state level. She was recently appointed to President Biden’s COVID-19 Equity Taskforce to help advise on how to address disparities and inequities to effectively bring resources into communities and move forward with a vaccination plan that priorities equity as a value.

COVID-19 Variant and the Vaccine

When viruses spread from person to person, they tend to shift their DNA in the replication process and while doing so can make mistakes in duplication, creating variants. Often these mistakes in the replication process creates a virus that is more easily spread or more likely to evade our immune defenses.

“The good news is that for the B.1.1.7 variant that we’ve identified thus far in Michigan, it looks like the vaccines that we currently have actually do work against that variance,” said Khaldun. “The most important thing that everyone can do right now is get their vaccine when it becomes available to them, and continue wearing their mask, washing their hands, and social distancing.”


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