TRAVERSE CITY — Patience is the best medicine and that’s what health officials are asking for as statewide efforts to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine ramp up to include some essential workers and people over 65.
Websites are crashing and phone lines are overwhelmed at health departments and at Munson Healthcare after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced last week that teachers, firefighters, law enforcement officers and jail and corrections staff, as well as anyone over 65, could begin getting the vaccine on Monday.
In addition, some scheduling links were turned off because vaccines that had been ordered were not delivered. Munson got fewer than 1,000 vaccines this week, said Dr. Christine Nefcy, chief medical officer.
“What we requested and what we want to get out is not always the same,” Nefcy said.
It will likely be the end of December before everyone in the state who wants a vaccine will get one, she said.
“The goal broadly is to get as many vaccines into arms as we can.”
On Tuesday links to scheduling forms or surveys were up on the Grand Traverse, Benzie-Leelanau and Northwest Michigan health departments. The forms let people tell the health department they want a vaccine. When it is their turn, or when there is enough vaccine available, they will be contacted.
The link at District Health Department #10 was still down due to lack of vaccine, with an alert on the site letting people know it will be reactivated when more vaccine is available. The department vaccinated more than 1,700 on Monday, though many had to be rescheduled.
Hospitals and health departments make a request every week for how much vaccine they want, though it’s uncertain from week to week how much they’ll actually get, Nefcy said. The federal government allocates doses to the states, which then distribute it. Clinics are adjusted based on what they get, she said.
District Health Department #4, which covers Alpena, Cheboygan, Montmorency and Presque Isle counties, on Tuesday had no way for people to sign up online and no one was answering the phones.
Sara Zaucha spent Monday trying to get her parents on a vaccine list. Zaucha lives in New York City. Her parents, who are both 69, live in Cheboygan. Zaucha said she went to the DHD#4 Facebook page, which directed her to the website, which gave her a number to call. When she called, no one answered and she couldn’t leave a message because the mailbox was full.
“Between my mom and I we probably called 100 times, but we couldn’t get through to anyone,” Zaucha said. “I’m really frustrated. I don’t even know the plan going forward.”
Dianne Michalek, vice president of communications for Munson Medical Center, said there are about 132,000 people over the age of 65 in the Munson Healthcare region, with 1.8 million in the state.
For now, Munson has prioritized people who are 90 and over. Staff spent the weekend through Monday identifying, contacting and scheduling those who were eligible and planned to give 300 doses on Tuesday.
Five more clinics are being scheduled in northern Michigan through the end of this week and next with the goal of giving a total of 2,000 vaccines both this week and next, Michalek said.
“We are hopeful that as manufacturing and supply increases we will begin to see more predictable doses allocated out,” she said. “It’s just hard to know when that will be realistic.”
Those who are established patients with a Munson Healthcare primary physician or specialty practice and are eligible for the vaccine do not need to sign up, Michalek said. They will be contacted by Munson to schedule an appointment.
People should not call their doctor or clinic as vaccines are not now being given in offices, she said.
“We already know who patients are that meet the criteria,” Michalek said.
Anyone who is not an established patient can visit the website of their regional health department to get on a vaccine list. When it is their turn, the health department will call them to schedule an appointment.
Wendy Hirschenberger, health officer for the Grand Traverse County Health Department, said testing, contact tracing and enforcement efforts are still being done in addition to holding vaccine clinics.
The goal was to give 700 vaccines this week, Hirschenberger said, which will be ramped up to 3,500 next week and each week for the foreseeable future.
“And, of course, all this is based on vaccine availability. That is the driver,” she said. “We appreciate that everyone is enthusiastic ... but it is going to be another 10 to 11 months of this.”
Lisa Peacock, health officer for the Benzie-Leelanau and Northwest Michigan health departments, said the goal is to increase access points across the region to distribute vaccine, but appointments have to be scheduled week by week.
“So please be ready for quick turnaround when we call or email you,” Peacock said.
COVID-19 vaccines are given by appointment only with social distancing and a 15-minute waiting period observed after the vaccine to make sure there is no allergic reaction because it is so new — all of which makes the vaccination process more time consuming, Peacock said.
A hotline has been established to schedule appointments for those 65 and older who are not computer literate or do not have internet service. The number, 231-715-5557, serves 10 counties, including Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Manistee, Missaukee and Wexford. It is hosted by the Area Agency on Aging of Northwest Michigan, which will help callers get scheduled at the right clinic.
Peacock said if people don’t get through they should wait a couple of days and try again.