WASHINGTON – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, battling a surge of coronavirus infections in her state, appealed on Tuesday toWhite House officials to shift away from a strict population-based formula for vaccine allocation and instead rush more doses to hard-hit parts of the country.
“I know that some national public health experts have suggested this as an effective mitigation tool,” she said during the White House coronavirus response team’s weekly call with governors, according to a recording of the conversation obtained by The Washington Post. “And I know we’d certainly welcome this approach in our state.”
The inquiry reflects growing unease among state officials on the front lines of what health experts say could be a new wave of the virus already afflicting parts of Europe. And it illustrates the pressure President Joe Biden is under, even from members of his own party, to show he is taking steps to address disquieting trends after a prolonged period of declining infections.
The accelerating pace of inoculations has not been sufficient to fend off case increases as more-transmissible variants circulate in the United States, especially among young people who have fallen sick in outbreaks tied to schools. As of Monday, Michigan’s seven-day average of new daily cases stood at 5,157, a 58% increase from a week ago and the steepest increase nationwide, according to Post data. The state, where restrictions were recently relaxed, also reported the largest growth in that same time frame in coronavirus hospitalizations, which rose by more than 47%.
But Jeff Zients, the White House’s coronavirus coordinator, told Whitmer the Biden administration is not inclined to change its formula for allocating vaccines. The federal government sends all three authorized vaccines to states and other jurisdictions based on the size of their populations, while setting aside separate portions for retail pharmacies, federally run mass vaccination sites and community health centers.
“We have to make sure that everything is thought through and on the table,” Zients said, advising Whitmer to work with experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure the increasing supply of shots is used most effectively to protect vulnerable populations.
Zients said a record weekly allocation to states of more than 21 million doses would provide governors with additional tools to curtail the virus. He also echoed Biden’s call for state and local leaders to reinstate mask mandates and pause their reopening plans.
All told, the federal government is expected to deliver about 33 million doses this week. Much of the increase comes from a significant boost of Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine, the supply of which is being split evenly between states and pharmacies, Zients told governors.
The formula for vaccine allocation was inherited from the Trump administration, though Biden’s team has significantly expanded the number of retail pharmacies where shots are available and has also deployed federal personnel to stand up about two dozen mass vaccination sites. Biden promised another 12 in remarks on Monday. These sites are chosen because they serve residents disproportionately burdened by the pandemic, officials say.
As manufacturing continues to ramp up, some experts have suggested further changes to how vaccines are distributed.
Citing outbreaks in particular states such as Michigan, Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said over the weekend that the Biden administration should “surge vaccine into those parts of the country.”
With “the incremental vaccine that’s coming onto the market, I think the Biden administration can allocate to parts of the country that look hot right now,” he said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.”
By diverting some of the expanded supply to hot spots, the government could avoid cutting any current allocations to states, he told The Post on Tuesday.
Arnold Monto, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan and the chairman of the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee, said the government may also need to adjust its formula to reflect waning demand for the shots in some parts of the country while others face continued scarcity.
“I’m not sure what the solution is, but clearly there are some problems with distribution,” he said.
Data released this week by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services shows hundreds of students and staff have been infected at schools throughout the state – with the most significant outbreak occurring among 36 students at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Earlier this month, Whitmer loosened capacity limits for restaurants and other businesses, and eased restrictions on both indoor and outdoor gatherings. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, told reporters last week that there was no single metric officials were using to decide whether to reimpose restrictions.
In response to a question about whether the governor would heed Biden’s call to halt reopenings, a spokesman said Whitmer was monitoring trends and juxtaposed her gradual approach with moves made in some other states.
“Unlike other states like Texas and Florida that have abandoned public health protocols altogether, Michigan continues to have smart health policies in place, such as a mask mandate and capacity limits on large gatherings,” said the spokesman, Bobby Leddy. “We are still very much in this pandemic, but we’ve learned a tremendous amount about how to protect ourselves and our loved ones.”