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Michigan on pace to miss Biden's July 4 vaccination goal as rates slow

Lansing — Michigan's COVID-19 vaccinations have been slowing to the point the state could be a month late in achieving President Joe Biden's goal of having 70% of the adult population with a first dose by the Fourth of July.

The weekly totals of residents receiving their initial dose have been trending downward for about two months. Meanwhile, the percentage of those age 18 and older with at least one dose in Michigan increased by less than 1 percentage point each of the last two weeks, according to data tracked by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The numbers point to the difficult and time-consuming task ahead for health officials in the state as they try to convince individuals who have resisted the vaccines. Michigan's leaders, who won praise for their aggressive approach to the pandemic last year, must now consider new and creative ways to reach those who have been holding out, experts said.

"The people who really, really wanted the vaccine and are eligible, they already got the vaccine," Michigan's Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said Wednesday. "Now, the hard work has to happen.”

Khaldun said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration is looking at the possibility of offering incentives to entice those who haven't gotten vaccinated — Ohio and other states have dangled lottery prizes. The state also is expected to award contracts later this month to entities that will focus on vaccinating vulnerable populations and offer mobile clinics, she said. 

Through Tuesday, the percentage of Michigan residents age 18 and older who had received at least their first dose stood at 60.5%, according to the CDC. The rate increased by less than 1 percentage point from 59.7% a week earlier on June 1. The June 1 number was up less than 1 percentage point from 58.8% a week earlier.

If the trends continue, it could be more than nine weeks before Michigan hits 70%. As of Tuesday, there were 26 days remaining until the Fourth of July. Over the previous 26 days, the percentage of vaccinated adults increased by only 4 percentage points, according to the federal data.

Dr. Jennifer Morse, who serves as the medical director for 19 counties in northern Michigan, said vaccination numbers have "definitely" slowed down in her areas. She has seen survey data that indicated there are unvaccinated individuals who are willing to get the vaccine if it were provided to them.

“It’s just the question of how do you do that," Morse said. "Do you go door to door? Do we get more and more primary care providers to have the vaccine?”

She added, “It’s just getting harder and harder to figure that out.”

Vaccination goals

On May 4, Biden announced his nationwide goal of having 70% of the adult population with at least a dose of the vaccine by the Fourth of July. As it stands, 13 states have individually achieved that goal.

Illinois — with 68.6% of its adult population vaccinated — is the Midwestern state that's closest to hitting the benchmark, according to the CDC. Minnesota was at 68.1% Tuesday, and Wisconsin was at 63.6%. Michigan ranked 28th nationally for the percentage of its population 18 and older with at least one dose of the vaccine.

Khaldun — who previously worked in Maryland, which is among the states that have hit the 70% target — said the practice of public health differs in other regions of the country.

In Michigan, health officials are working aggressively to get vaccines into neighborhoods, she said.

"We are doing everything we can to make the vaccine accessible," Khaldun said.

Whitmer's administration has been focused on a goal of getting 70% of the adult population age 16 and up vaccinated with at least one dose. The administration has not been pledging to do it by July 4.

The overarching 70% goal is "absolutely" still achievable, Khaldun said.

As of Tuesday, 60% of Michigan's population age 16 and older had received at least their first COVID-19 vaccine dose, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

'You can't rush it'

About 20% of Michigan residents aren't planning to get vaccinated at all, according to polling released Monday by the Detroit Regional Chamber.

The poll of 600 registered voters, performed by the Lansing-based Glengariff Group, found that 77% of participants either had been vaccinated or planned to get vaccinated. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points and was conducted May 22-26.

Richard Czuba, founder of the Glengariff Group, said research has shown the moment Michigan has reached was coming: "Fence-sitters" are slowing the vaccination process.

“There’s a path to getting to the mid-70s in vaccinations," Czuba said. "But it’s going to be a slow, time-consuming process and you can’t rush it, or force it to get there.”

Czuba said health officials should focus on distributing vaccines through primary care physicians, who are trusted sources of information, and work through churches and in neighborhoods.

Vaccines should be taken door to door in lower-income urban and rural areas, said Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, an epidemiologist and the former leader of the Detroit Health Department. Michigan's largest city, Detroit, announced a program Wednesday to provide COVID-19 vaccines to residents who are home-bound.

"I think the incentives are proving effective in other states," said El-Sayed, who ran for governor in 2018 as a Democrat.

Ohio, New York, Maryland and Oregon are among the states that have offered the chance at financial prizes to those who get vaccinated. Ohio, the first state to do so, saw a jump in vaccinations after announcing its "Vax-A-Million" campaign.

At a May 20 press conference in Midland, Whitmer said state law precluded the offering of financial lottery prizes. 

"But we are investigating if there are additional ways that we can encourage people to get vaccinated," Whitmer said.

The administration hasn't announced any incentive program in the following three weeks. 

The state has reached the point of the vaccination effort where it must target people who are busy or ambivalent toward the vaccine, said Joseph Eisenberg, an epidemiology professor at the University of Michigan.

“We can make progress," Eisenberg said. "But it takes more work to get those people, and we have to think about creative ways."

He mentioned the possibility of putting vaccines on vans, like ice cream trucks, to have them available in neighborhoods.

Vaccination stakes

The slowing vaccination numbers come as Michigan's COVID-19 infection rates have dropped significantly since a surge hit in April. Last week, the state reported 2,626 new cases, the lowest total in 48 weeks.

The case rates also plummeted in Michigan last summer, before spiking again in the fall. Some health officials are concerned that the declining numbers could provide a false sense of security.

Eisenberg said the state is still vulnerable to local clusters of cases. Morse, the medical director for 19 Michigan counties, said she fears that if not enough people are vaccinated, the state won't really shut down the virus.

The virus is still present, Khaldun said. If it continues to spread, new variants could take hold.

"We’ve made a lot of progress," she said. "But we are still in the middle of the pandemic."

Michigan has had 891,314 confirmed cases and 19,439 deaths since the virus was first detected in March 2020, according to the state health department.

Staff Writers Sarah Rahal and Amelia Benavides-Colón contributed.