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Michigan lawmakers seek to win over skeptics in race to vaccinate


A few weeks ago, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell finally overcame her fear and got the COVID-19 vaccine. The moment came after months of fretting, consulting 10 doctors and working up her courage.

The Dearborn Democrat isn't anti-vaccine, she said. But she's been afraid of shots since experiencing an adverse reaction to a different shot that temporarily left her partially paralyzed from Guillain-Barre syndrome decades ago.

Dingell is now taking the knowledge she gathered and is advocating for others, urging them to ask questions, educate themselves and get the COVID-19 shot or the shots, too. She wrote openly about her qualms in a daily Facebook journal, "bringing other people along with me," she said.

"There are people like me that were afraid to get the vaccine, and I want to help them," she said. "I'll go with them to help conquer the fear."

Dingell is among several Michigan lawmakers working to boost confidence in the COVID vaccine amid the race to get shots into arms, as the state sees another surge in cases and hospitalizations. Michigan has had the most cases per capita nationally in recent days, adding cases at a higher rate than others.

Public health experts worry that vaccine hesitation among some groups — including Blacks, Republicans and rural Americans — could dampen efforts to stem the spread of the virus.

Officials have said that 70% to 85% of Americans would need to get the vaccine to reach what's called herd immunity. Michigan had vaccinated 22.8% of its 8.1 million adult population that's 16 years and older through Monday, according to state data.

So at a time when many members of Congress are still limiting in-person events, they're making exceptions to visit vaccine clinics and trainings, even volunteering at clinics themselves.

They aim to hear feedback from local officials and inform constituents about how the process is going, but also raise public awareness and win over those who might be on the fence about getting the shot.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat, on Friday stopped by a mobile vaccination clinic in Highland Park run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

"I hear the fear, and it’s real," said Tlaib, noting the grave mistrust of government health initiatives among Black and indigenous communities. "When I went public about getting the vaccination, that helped people. People in the comments said, 'Tell us how it’s going.'" 

Tlaib reported back the good and the bad, including the side effects after her second dose in January. "I said be aware of that … ask those questions and make the decision that you think is the right one for you," she said. "Cases continue to climb, so it’s essential that we speak out."

Overcoming some GOP resistance

Lawmakers said they recognize that, as politicians, they aren't the trusted scientific experts. That's why they're hosting virtual or telephone town halls and letting participants ask questions of public health officials about vaccine safety and efficacy. 

Others are sharing their own stories, with several posting photos or videos of them receiving their jab.

"It's important that we get through this pandemic and get as many folks vaccinated as possible. So go out and get your shot," Republican Rep. Peter Meijer of Grand Rapids Township said in a video on Twitter as a health care worker pinched his arm to deliver his second dose.

Part of what members say they are reacting to is the "politicization" of the pandemic in some corners that has led some Republicans to oppose vaccination.

The resistance has occurred even as former President Donald Trump has occasionally trumpeted his administration's success in paving the way for the development of COVID vaccines "in record time, nine months, which is saving the entire world."

"The issue, unfortunately and erroneously, has been cast as some sort of a political issue, or that being vaccinated is some sort of political statement, which clearly it is not," said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township.

"But since that sort of politics has invaded this conversation, I think it's been important that we speak up when appropriate, when asked. But not to become the face of pro-vaccine advocacy over health care providers, people's own physicians, community leaders, faith leaders."

Most of the Michigan delegation has been vaccinated, with the exception of Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Holland, who has tested positive for antibodies after having had COVID last year. 

It's unclear whether GOP Rep. Lisa McClain is vaccinated, as her office would not say, citing privacy concerns. But McClain of Bruce Township, like others, has been promoting vaccine resources for constituents, including alerts about vaccine eligibility.

'Yes, I took it'

Republican Rep. Tim Walberg of Tipton said a reason he got the vaccine as soon as it was offered to members of Congress last year was so he could encourage others to follow suit.

"If we're telling people, you ought to contemplate having a vaccine, they ought to be able to say, 'Have you had it?' And the answer should be, 'Yes, I took it. I survived, had no significant problems from it and I think you can have the same,'" Walberg said.

"I think putting the information out, encouraging people, making it as easy as possible, and as many places as possible, we can have impact of what we want — that being herd immunity."

He acknowledged that some segment of Republicans probably won't get vaccinated, which he attributed to their being more "independent thinkers" than Democrats.

"I would hope that some of those would harken back to the fact that it was Donald Trump that set the motion in place to develop through Operation Warp Speed this vaccine, and he took it himself," Walberg said.

"That should encourage some who might say, 'This is a government plot,' to think, 'Well, I like Trump; I like his administration; I like what he did; if he took it, then I will.' But if they don't take it, that's their choice."

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, held a series of town halls in late March hoping to reach some vaccine hesitant constituents, particularly after surveys suggested a sizable portion of Republicans don't intend to get vaccinated.

Upton addressed concerns about the expedited nature of the vaccines — a process made possible by legislation he had spearheaded in 2016. That law allowed drug companies to develop vaccines faster and start producing them before they received emergency government approval.

"It still has the same number of people in the trials — more than 30,000. No safety cuts were taken," Upton told a call aimed at Berrien County residents. 

On a Facebook town hall last week hosted by Democratic Rep. Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township,  a participant questioned why the vaccines are authorized for emergency use only.

Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, a top official with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, assured listeners the vaccines are safe and approaching 100% efficacy in protecting from death due to COVID-19.

"At this point, these vaccines have been administered to millions of people and the adverse reactions have been very, very low," Bagdasarian said.

"So I would say that these vaccines are some of the most regulated and most vetted vaccines that we have available. These are incredibly safe and effective vaccines."

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Holly Democrat, plans to volunteer at vaccination clinics in each of the three counties in her largely Republican district.

"That's to show people how simple it is, how easy it is, how everyone's doing it — particularly for people who might be hesitant maybe for reasons of misinformation but also, frankly the African American community where there's we've seen some hesitancy," she said. 

Slotkin noted that much of the feedback she got from constituents for a time was supply related, for instance, from residents in GOP-heavy Livingston County that felt they weren't getting enough vaccine.

"I took that as a good sign that people are clamoring to get vaccinated," she said. 

Staff writer Riley Beggin contributed.

mburke@detroitnews.com