CEO Report — Michigan’s Next COVID-19 Obstacle: Overcoming Vaccine Hesitancy

MHA Rounds Report - Brian Peters, MHA CEO

"Leadership is not about titles, positions, or flow charts. It is about one life influencing another."  John C. Maxwell

MHA CEO Brian PetersAs Michigan seeks to recover from an unexpectedly challenging third surge of COVID-19, the focus of the MHA, our member hospitals, and our partners in the public and private sectors remains squarely on vaccinating enough Michiganders to prevent any such spread from occurring again. We have made great progress in this regard, and I am especially proud of our member hospitals that have played a major role in administering the nearly 7 million vaccine doses to Michiganders, leading to a statewide vaccination rate of 38% as of this writing. A prioritization process that began with healthcare workers, first responders and the highest-risk population cohorts has now expanded to include all Michiganders age 16 and older.

It was natural that when the long-awaited vaccine finally became available late last year, demand would exceed supply. Broad swaths of the American population were eager and highly motivated to receive their vaccination as soon as possible, and the supply chain simply couldn’t keep up. For months, the MHA was fielding daily calls from our hospital and health system leaders, pleading for help in securing more vaccine. They had invested time, energy and financial resources to establish the infrastructure necessary to store and administer the vaccine, to schedule appointments and secure adequate staffing, and a host of other components. With community members lining up to get vaccinated, the lack of adequate vaccine supplies became the real bottleneck in the process.

But just as we anticipated, the supply/demand curve has begun to flip. For the very first time, we are beginning to field calls from members who are concerned that vaccination appointment slots are now going unfilled in large numbers, and — combined with a significant increase in the flow of vaccine to Michigan — in some locations supply has begun to exceed demand. According to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll, just 6% of American adults now say they have not yet been vaccinated but plan to get a shot “as soon as it is available to me.” With Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last week announcing the MI Vacc to Normal plan, which directly links our vaccination rate progress to the gradual re-opening and full return to normalcy for the state, this challenge takes on even more urgency. 

“Vaccine hesitancy” is not a new term, as the MHA has been deeply engaged in the I Vaccinate effort to encourage childhood vaccinations to protect against pertussis, flu, measles, mumps and more. We partner annually with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) to promote flu vaccine for hospital staff and all Michiganders. From these experiences, we know that there are multiple drivers of vaccine hesitancy, and some of those can be confounding.

When it comes to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, many of the issues have been well covered in the media, and U.S. census estimates provide an up-to-date tracking mechanism. Rather than diving into those issues, I want to lift up this reality: for clear evidence that vaccines work, look no further than our Michigan hospitalization data during this most recent surge — hospitalizations for the oldest age groups increased at the lowest rates because they had the highest vaccination rates. Said another way, this latest hospitalization surge was driven mainly by relatively younger, unvaccinated Michiganders.

COVID-19 vaccines are proving to be approximately 99% effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death. This is the data point that should prevail against any discussion of “breakthrough” cases or serious, unanticipated side effects — both of which have occurred in extraordinarily small numbers and pale in comparison to the risk presented to individuals and communities by the ongoing pandemic if we allow it to continue. On a personal note, I recently received the Pfizer vaccine, delivered by Sparrow Health System right here in Lansing. The entire process was very efficient and painless, and the psychological boost that I have heard others describe is very real: I feel protected for my family, friends and colleagues, and I have done my part to help the broader community.

So, what is the right strategy to move us forward? Already, there are discussions around vaccine mandates, “passports” and incentives — and the social and political angst that accompanies these discussions was easily predictable. For now, I will simply state our belief that this is truly an all-hands-on-deck challenge, and no one person, organization or institution can win this battle alone. 

The health of communities depends on vaccinating enough of the population to stop the spread of the disease and limit the chance of more contagious variants developing. If you understand this and have been vaccinated yourself, thank you. Now, please share your encouragement with the people in your life who are still on the sidelines — because we know that the most influential thing that a hesitant person can experience is hearing from someone they know and trust who chose to be vaccinated. If you work in healthcare, this is especially important. After all, true leadership is “one life influencing another.” Both the American Hospital Association and the MDHHS have created their own communications tools and television ads modeled on sharing personal reasons for vaccination to assist in this effort.

We have the finish line in our sights, but we cannot waiver in our commitment to end this pandemic. We owe it to ourselves, to our healthcare heroes and to those who have lost their lives to COVID-19 to do what it takes to end it now. The most powerful tool is in our toolbox, and we must redouble our commitment to using it. 

As always, I welcome your thoughts.