Back-office workers before teachers: Here's what is wrong with Michigan's COVID-19 vaccine prioritization


 If you're the owner of a bar or restaurant in Michigan right now, you want every public school teacher vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as humanly possible.

That's because this economy isn't going to get out from under the weighted blanket of the coronavirus pandemic until 1.5 million school-age children are safely in classrooms every day.

So the policies the state and federal government impose that restrict the immediate flow of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines into the broader population actually matters to your livelihood.

Three weeks into Michigan's mass inoculations to stop COVID-19's deadly destruction, the state's plans for prioritizing certain industries and workers over the others for getting the shot is showing signs of trouble.

Already, just 1-in-5 available doses of the vaccine have been poked into the arms of Michigan's front-line workers in health care and public safety.

If you're a state government leader, simply saying the holidays caused delays in administering the vaccine is not a real good excuse for Michigan ranking sixth lowest in the country in per capita vaccinations. You've had nine months to prepare for this generation's invasion of Normandy.

Last week, after running out of nurses, doctors, and pharmacists to vaccinate, Beaumont Health made COVID-19 vaccines available to all employees and started inoculating administrative staff at its Southfield headquarters — just to get vials of vaccine off its shelves before they expired.

They did so after getting approval from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which created a confusing four-phase prioritization schedule for the COVID-19 vaccine that put anyone working in health care ahead of everyone else, regardless of their actual health or if they even work in settings with sick people. Or any people, for that matter.

Why is a healthy medical biller working in an office building in Southfield — or maybe their basement — getting the vaccine before every teacher in Michigan who has to share a 1,000-square-foot classroom with 25 kids potentially carrying the coronavirus?

That's exactly what's taking place this week, even as dozens of school districts in Michigan try to reopen classrooms after a six-week shut down because of the fall coronavirus surge.

That same surge is the reason why bars and restaurants are still closed through at least Jan. 15 by order of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's health department.

As the health care sector quickly runs out of workers willing to be vaccinated under Phase 1A of the state's prioritization plan, the state will shift to Phase 1B.

And that's where things are already getting messy.

Following recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state has created two subgroups within Phase 1B: Individuals over age 75 and "frontline essential workers," which include teachers, daycare workers, police officers, firefighters, prison guards, postal workers, bus drivers, workers in critical manufacturing settings, as well as food, grocery, and agriculture workers. Phase 1B also extends to workers in homeless shelters, though not the people taking shelter from the cold.

That's the short version of who gets prioritized for the vaccine next.

The Whitmer administration is, once again, falling back on the federal Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency's definition of critical industries, which includes the chemical, defense, and energy industries, telecommunications, as well as government workers in water, wastewater, and public works.

In other words, a whole lot of workers will be in line for the vaccine alongside teachers because the CISA-defined industries and jobs are open to broad interpretation.

Recall the brouhaha last spring when manufacturers of all stripes were trying to figure out whether they were an essential business or the supplier of an essential business in critical manufacturing or the health care industry. Suddenly, every tool-and-die shop was assembling plastic face shields.

The state's list of industries includes financial services. But the CDC has placed bank tellers in the less urgent group of "essential" workers under Phase 1C of the vaccine prioritization schedule

"(Bank tellers) are front-line workers," Oxford Bank CEO Dave Lamb told Crain's. "Our doors are open, just like going to the grocery store or the gas station."

All this has done is reignite the lobbying in Lansing among business trade groups for a better spot in line.

Why the Whitmer administration wants a repeat of the essential vs. nonessential business disaster from back in the spring is beyond anyone's understanding.

This prioritization schedule will arguably delay the speed of administering vaccines to Michigan educators who spend up to seven hours a day with 1.5 million schoolchildren, who in turn go home to mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa and spread the coronavirus —or carry it back to their school building.

"We're at a point now that without a fairly rapid vaccine rollout within the school community, the desire to get more and more kids back into classrooms is probably not going to happen just because of those labor problems," Bob McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, a consortium of school superintendents in Southeast Michigan, said Wednesday. "We've expressed those same concerns to the administration as recently as yesterday, frankly."

It's no coincidence that Whitmer's forced shutdown of high schools in late November and December and voluntary district-level closures of elementary and middle school buildings corresponded with a flattening of the COVID infection curve.

But school buildings can't stay closed forever, with students relegated to Zoom calls, clunky e-learning software, and paper worksheets. It's not good for the kids, the teachers, the working parents, or the employers who need their workforce back.

So that's why it's confounding that the Whitmer administration accepted the federal government's recommended vaccination prioritization schedule. States weren't mandated to accept it.

Teachers in other states have already gotten their first shot of the vaccine — and ours are headed back to classrooms next week with just a face mask.

The four-phase approach also prioritizes a young, healthy office worker in an "essential" industry's administrative offices before a medically vulnerable 70-year-old who has been living in isolation for the past 10 months. In Phase 1C, people ages 65-74 at risk of severe illness can get in line for the vaccine.

This entire approach prioritizes one life over another.

As of Tuesday, there were more than a half-million doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines sitting on a shelf somewhere in Michigan. There's plenty of people eager to get it so they can go back to work safely or reopen their dining establishment and not go bankrupt.

It's time to flatten this bureaucratic plan and hold mass vaccination clinics for teachers, daycare workers, and anyone over 75 or with a pre-existing medical condition — and then everyone else.

Stop gatekeeping the vaccine.

Let's get this pandemic over with.

Editor's note: Hours after this column was published Wednesday morning, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that the state is speeding up some aspects of its phased-in vaccination schedule. PreK-12 teachers, daycare workers and individuals over age 65 will be able to get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as Jan. 11.

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