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Michigan Officials Wrestle With How To Ethically Distribute COVID-19 Vaccines


As demand for COVID-19 vaccines soars, new tensions are emerging over who gets a vaccine when. That's especially true in Michigan, as Abigail Censky of member station WKAR reports.

ABIGAIL CENSKY, BYLINE: Across the country, states are using slightly different systems for rolling out vaccinations. Michigan relies on a formula recommended by the Centers for Disease Control called the Social Vulnerability Index. It considers 15 different factors, including minority groups, how many people live in multigenerational housing, age and income. But some Republicans in the state legislature, like Jim Runestad, think the state shouldn't use the SVI. He's concerned about the 65-year-olds in his majority-white suburban district in Detroit.

JIM RUNESTAD: This is the population. I don't care what race they are. I don't care what ethnicity they are. I don't care what language they speak. These are the people who are vulnerable to die. We should be worrying about getting this virus into the hands of the people who can preserve these people, who are the most vulnerable, and not any other matrix.

CENSKY: But some respond that not using the CDC plan would be racist. Early on, the virus surged in Detroit, the country's largest majority-Black city. And more than 3,400 Black Michiganders have died from the virus, making up 21% of the state's deaths despite being just 14% of the state's population. Renee Canady heads the Michigan Public Health Institute. She compares public health professionals to firefighters. They run to the fire.

RENEE CANADY: If this were affecting white men, we'd be running to that fire because it is our professional obligation. So when we have seen repeated over and over again this pattern where disproportionately Black, Latino, Native American communities are suffering more, it is our moral and professional responsibility to go there.

CENSKY: That's why places like Wayne County, which includes Detroit, have received more vaccines than neighboring whiter, wealthier counties.


CENSKY: In a parking garage under the TCF Center in Detroit, 4,700 people are getting their shots today. People in white protective suits and scrubs buzz around with clipboards while industrial fans were in the background. Voletta Bonner is a Black 38-year-old teacher from Detroit. She says distributing the vaccine based only on age doesn't make any sense to her.

VOLETTA BONNER: Everybody wasn't affected the same. So how do you then say, OK, well, now let's just open it up for everybody? That's not fair.

CENSKY: Eric Smith is also getting his second shot. He's a Black 50-year-old letter carrier from Detroit and argues this levels the playing field for some communities. So the argument that the SVI shouldn't be used is a mistake.

ERIC SMITH: I would say to them that they're on the wrong side of history, and they're going to hurt a lot of people if they continue to fight that.

CENSKY: Lawrence Gostin agrees. He teaches public health law at Georgetown University. He says race plays a key role in this controversy.

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: Nobody would say that we should outlaw CDC guidance that prioritizes nursing homes. Why on Earth would you do the same thing for equally disadvantaged, equally vulnerable populations?

CENSKY: Overall, Detroit still trails the surrounding suburbs in the percent of the 16 and older population that's received their first dose. But health officials say the SVI protocol has been crucial to making the vaccines available to more vulnerable populations.

For NPR News, I'm Abigail Censky in Lansing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOHN SONG, "SIGNAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Abigail Censky is the Politics & Government reporter at WKAR. She started in December 2018.