Gretchen Whitmer to WH: Stop allocating vaccines by population and send more to my state

Via Jim Geraghty, everyone who lives outside Michigan is reading that headline and thinking “nope.” But given the state of its outbreak — which is freakishly bad relative to all other U.S. states right now — there’s a case to be made for her position. Especially if you’re worried about Michigan’s problem, which is being driven by the more contagious British variant, spilling over regionally and eventually nationally.

Their daily average in cases stands at 6,697, the highest number since early December and less than a thousand off their peak since the start of the pandemic. Just five U.S. states account for nearly half of all national COVID cases right now but Michigan stands apart among them. It had the most cases yesterday of any jurisdiction despite having a much smaller population than states like California and Texas. And other states with rising case counts are seeing slow daily increases, not the classic soaring curve that Michigan is experiencing.

Question, then: Is it time to start taking vaccines away from other states and sending them to Whitmer’s? That’s where the viral fire is burning most ferociously so logically that’s where we should aim our extinguisher. Follow-up question, though: Is Michigan’s problem fundamentally a supply or demand problem? If we boost their vaccine allocation by 20 percent, say, how many of those doses are going to sit on shelves for weeks instead of going into arms in other states?

Last week, Whitmer appealed to White 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, including her state.

“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’s Isaac Stanley-Becker. “And I know we’d certainly welcome this approach in our state.”…

Jeff Zients, the White House’s coronavirus coordinator, told Whitmer the Biden administration is not inclined to change its formula for allocating vaccine doses, Isaac reported.

There are different ways you could do this. You could reallocate, say, five percent of every state’s next vaccine allotment to Michigan (although you might be constrained by needing to make sure there are enough second doses in those states for everyone who’s already received a first dose). You could ask one or two large states to part with a chunk of their next shipment to help Michigan; California, where the virus has all but disappeared lately, would be the obvious candidate but Gavin Newsom’s not going to want to slow his effort down. Or, instead of reallocating vaccines, you could ask Michigan to switch to a UK strategy in which it uses its existing supply to administer first doses to as many people as possible, even if that means delaying second doses past the recommended six-week window. Fauci and other experts dislike that idea, however, even though it’s done wonders for Britain in quickly bringing its runaway epidemic under control.

But like I say, let’s say we pull together and surge an extra 20 percent of vaccines into Michigan. How soon will they actually be used? In Detroit, uptake is so slow that they’re now sending workers door-to-door asking people to get vaccinated:

“We’re hoping to get started by the end of April,” she told WWJ Newsradio 950’s Sandra McNeill. “And the first stage of this canvassing we will knock on every residential door in the city of Detroit; approximately 220,000 doors.”

The effort comes after Mayor Duggan on Monday warned of skyrocketing COVID rates in the city.

The number of people in the hospital, he said, has tripled in two weeks; while the city’s vaccination rate is just 21% — well below the statewide average.

Needing doorknockers to convince people to get immunized sounds like a demand problem, not a supply problem. And Michigan may getting it on both ends of the political spectrum, with not just greater hesitancy in Detroit but possibly higher reluctance in the state’s redder, rural parts since conservatives are more likely to be skeptical of the vaccine than liberals are.

There’s another logistical problem potentially that might not be solved by sending extra vaccines. Namely, according to Scott Gottlieb, kids are responsible for a greater number of infections lately in Michigan. And most kids aren’t eligible yet for the vaccine:

Geraghty makes another fair point, which is that Michigan isn’t doing particularly badly in dishing out first doses relative to other states. Thirty-two percent of residents have received their first dose, a shade lower than California or New York (35 percent). Since all states are currently receiving doses based on population, it’s hard to see why too-limited supply explains Michigan’s underperformance. If Whitmer wants more doses, she should at least give the feds some reassurance that her state has the logistical capacity to administer those doses quickly. Based on the current numbers, it’s reasonable to worry that it doesn’t.

One possibly underrated factor in explaining why Michigan’s outbreak is so ferocious right now relative to, say, New York’s is that there may be less natural immunity across the population. Out of 50 states, Michigan is ranked 42nd in confirmed cases per capita since the start of the pandemic. And that’s not a pure function of lower testing; it’s ranked 22nd in tests per capita by comparison. Other northern states that experienced hellacious spikes previously may have seeded enough infection that even the unvaccinated share of the population enjoys a meaningful degree of protection. Not in Michigan, though, perhaps. They may have more dry tinder for the virus to burn through than neighboring states have due to their luck in dodging a nasty outbreak earlier in the pandemic. And now their luck’s finally run out.