Boxes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine are prepared to be shipped at the Pfizer Global Supply Kalamazoo manufacturing plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan on December 13, 2020. - The Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine was  to begin leaving the company's Michigan factory on Sunday, ready to be injected into the arms of millions of the most vulnerable Americans as the global death toll topped 1.6 million. Photo by Morry Gash via Getty.
Boxes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine are prepared to be shipped at the Pfizer Global Supply Kalamazoo manufacturing plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan on December 13, 2020. - The Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine was to begin leaving the company's Michigan factory on Sunday, ready to be injected into the arms of millions of the most vulnerable Americans as the global death toll topped 1.6 million.

Still overcoming a rocky vaccine rollout, Michigan and Pfizer have drawn on a deep, shared history to overcome the setbacks.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Pfizer, a New York-based pharmaceutical company, has long had a presence in Michigan, founding in 2003 its Upjohn division in Kalamazoo. 

Even as other branches in places like Ann Arbor were shuttered over a decade ago, the drugmaker’s presence in southwest Michigan has held strong. And with the record-breaking development of the vaccine, that production facility has become a part of world history.

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As Pfizer was submitting its COVID-19 vaccine for emergency authorization to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the company had its Kalamazoo facility start preparing to enter mass production of the vaccine. And as Kalamazoo had produced the trial vaccine, which ultimately got approval to go to the general public, the facility was best positioned to ramp up production.

Michigan is proud of the role it has played hosting the development and distribution.

“This is great news for our families, our frontline workers, and our small business owners,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in a November statement. “Michigan has always been on the forefront of innovation, and I am proud to see that Pfizer, a Michigan business and one of the largest pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities in the world, will produce the vaccine in our great state.“

But despite contributing to a “historical moment,” Whitmer and Pfizer have been confronting a new problem since January: Kalamazoo County is shockingly short on supply of the COVID-19 vaccine.

So far, Kalamazoo County has administered 23,000 doses of the vaccine, primarily using the Pfizer version of the vaccine. But its list of residents 65 and older pre-registered to receive their coronavirus vaccine is already longer than 20,000 names. Anyone in the county who is in that age group can join the list online or by calling 269-373-5200. But distributing those vaccines will take time. 

Hurdles to Distribution

Thanks to a lack of unified national distribution strategy and the decades of disinvestment in public health, the infrastructure has not been in place to get vaccines to people as quickly as possible. Further, there weren’t direct buys from Pfizer available to offset the broken federal supply chain. 

This left Michigan with the ability to produce the vaccine, but without an effective strategy for moving the product to those in the state who needed it. 

“This is the most massive vaccination effort ever undertaken in the country, and every state is grappling with vaccine distribution going slower than needed to end this pandemic as quickly as possible,” said Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Public Information Officer Lynn Sutfin. “Vaccine [doses] are being delivered daily to providers across the state, and MDHHS is working with these entities to support their operational plans and provide additional staffing support to increase the speed at which the vaccines are being administered.”

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With the election of President Joe Biden, which Michigan played a pivotal role in making happen, the new administration and the scientific community have come together to develop a plan where there was none, to distribute 100 million doses over 100 days. Biden’s massive 200-page plan prioritizes testing, vaccination and following the science, a break from the previous administration’s political approach to the pandemic.

One way Biden plans to speed up the vaccination process is by inviting foreign-trained and retired doctors to assist in deploying the vaccine, which is a strategy already in use in Traverse City, where retired pharmacists like Mike Tiberg have returned to work to prepare doses of the vaccine. 

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“We know it’s going to be a number of months down the road before we can get to any place that’s normal,” Tiberg told The ‘Gander. “We’re trying to get out as many doses as we can into people’s arms … It will be coming. Again, it may be a number of months before we get everybody that wants to be vaccinated vaccinated, but we’ll definitely be out there.”

But no single plan can address all the systemic disinvestment the public health system in America faces. While experts are excited about Biden’s strategy, including an order of 200 million doses from current vaccine makers, the logistical and financial strain on the system looms still.

Confronting the Problems in Kalamazoo

As Michigan prepares for mass distribution of the vaccine, the struggle to get doses from the state’s own backyard is characteristic of the mismanagement of the early vaccine rollout on the federal level, explains Kalamazoo public health expert Dr. Matt Longjohn.

“Without sufficient coordination with federal agencies, everything inevitably gets bogged down when vaccine supply is short, or local public health agencies don’t know how much vaccine they’ll be getting until it shows up, or both,” he explained to The ‘Gander.

Michigan has done what it could to address national logistical hurdles. But that wasn’t enough to get Kalamazoo through its 20,000 names in a rapid timeframe. So Gov. Whitmer also asked to purchase the vaccine directly from Pfizer, a plan for which she needs approval from the federal Department of Health and Human Services. 

A direct buy of 100,000 doses, as Gov. Whitmer proposed, would go far to alleviating that problem. 

“It will take all of us—the federal government, state and local leaders, health departments, and everyday Americans—to ensure everyone can get the safe and effective vaccine,” Whitmer said in a statement. “I am eager to hear back from the federal government regarding my request, and will continue to work with them and leaders everywhere to end this pandemic and save lives.”

Whitmer has, as yet, not been given authorization for a direct purchase of the vaccine, but her efforts led to other states uncovering the fact that the federal stockpile of vaccine doses had been totally exhausted.

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This dovetails with efforts that have lifted Michigan from one of the worst states in America in terms of vaccine rollout to one of the best, by confronting directly the logistical problems the state faced. 

As of Monday, Michigan reports 760,000 doses of the vaccine have been administered, just 5% of the 14 million needed to achieve herd immunity.

According to Gov. Whitmer, Michigan’s biggest remaining challenge is getting needed supplies from the federal government, which she hopes will become easier through Biden’s first 100 days. Even so, it is unlikely most Michiganders will be vaccinated before April.

In a Monday press conference Gov. Whitmer told reporters that the effort to overcome Michigan’s challenges continues, with additional funding requested in her COVID relief proposal awaiting discussion in the Legislature. Legislative Republicans, who control both the state House and Senate, have pledged not to negotiate until demands to re-engage sectors of the economy regardless of public health determinations are met. But Gov. Whitmer remains optimistic. 

“I’m hopeful that it was just an off-the-cuff remark,” she told reporters.