Frustrated seniors compete for vaccines as northern Michigan receives fewer doses

Feb 3, 2021

 

Nurses and members of the Michigan National Guard help Grand Traverse County residents get vaccinated at the Hagerty Center on Jan. 29.
Credit Taylor Wizner

It’s exactly 1 p.m. Monday when Interlochen residents Aaron and Mary Kay Stander click on Grand Traverse County’s website.

Vaccine appointments just went live and the Standers, both in their late 70s, are each on a computer typing their information as quickly as they can.

“I think we just got two appointments. I think…” says Stander.

Moments later, Stander realizes he secured only one appointment. In just four minutes more than 900 vaccine slots for county residents filled up. 


He’s lucky he secured an appointment slot at all, because for most seniors in northern Michigan, it’s now harder to get a vaccine.

The state recently changed the formula for how many vaccines it supplies regions. Now, counties report it’s based on population size and other risk factors rather than how many doses counties request, meaning less of the vaccine makes it to northern Michigan. According to state data, last updated Jan. 29, northern lower counties are among those with the highest vaccination rates per capita—likely due to the previous system which accounted more for demographics.

Wendy Hirschenberger, of the Grand Traverse County Health Department, doesn’t expect vaccine supply to improve for a while.

“Likely it’ll be weeks before we’re starting to get more,” she says. “We definitely could triple to quadruple the amount of people [the county immunizes in a week] if we had the vaccine.”

Munson Healthcare has also been vaccinating residents that are 80 and older. But this week the hospital system reported receiving substantially less of the vaccine than they were expecting. They suspended vaccine clinics except for those already scheduled.

Grand Traverse County takes a cautious approach to scheduling vaccine appointments. In an effort not to cancel clinics, the health department won’t offer appointments until they receive vaccines on Friday afternoons. In the past, they’ve been able to get appointments posted on the online system by the late afternoon.

Grand Traverse County resident Becky Pattinson, who has been trying to schedule a vaccine for her 66-year-old husband, was expecting to see appointments when she checked last Friday, on Jan. 29. 

“I set alarms on my phone today to go off at 3:59, 4:30 and 4:59 so I can try to get on,” she says.

Pattinson says new times weren’t listed when she looked. The county sent an alert to the media and posted on their Facebook page that appointments wouldn’t be available until Monday afternoon.

But Pattinson didn’t see the change until late Friday. She’s frustrated by the process, which is causing her to neglect her work each week.

“I’m not a retired person who can sit in front of a computer and press refresh over and over all day long,” she says.

Even though she was prepared with advance knowledge when appointments would go online Monday, Pattinson still wasn’t able to get one.

As more and more people struggle to successfully make a vaccine appointment they turn to Heidi Gustine, the Executive Director of the Northwest Michigan Area Agency on Aging. 

She helps run a senior hotline that is overloaded several times a day, as hundreds of people like Pattinson call.

“All these phone numbers are crashing because people are making repeated phone calls,” Gustine says.

The hotline was initially set up to help elderly residents with specific problems, like arranging transportation. Instead, operators spend much of their time assuring people they will get a call back for an appointment if they can’t make one online.

Even though he’s scheduled for a vaccine this week, Aaron Stander is still anxious. He knows his wife will have to wade through this uncertainty again next week to try to get an appointment.

“I wouldn’t mind even having an appointment in the middle of March if those dates were firm,” he says. “But not knowing anything is so difficult.”

The Grand Traverse County Health Department says it will update residents on the Grand Traverse County Facebook page and website when appointment registration opens each week.