Like many other U.S. cities, Detroit was battered by covid soon after the coronavirus began spreading last year and in subsequent waves. The city’s 2,419 dead include the beloved sheriff of Wayne County, high-profile community leaders, cops, firefighters and health-care workers. Everyone in southeast Michigan seemed to know or know of someone who had been sick with covid or died from it.
Detroiters thus could have been expected to rush for vaccinations once the shots became available this year. But that hasn’t happened. The city’s vaccination rate is 24 percentage points below the latest statewide rate, and as much as 30 points below nearby counties. The rate in New York City is lower than the stellar New York statewide rate, but it’s still a robust 54 percent for all ages.
But other reasons make Detroit’s situation more complex, says Ken Haddad, the digital content manager at WDIV-TV. In his morning newsletter and on his Twitter feed, Haddad has spent months identifying where vaccination clinics are operating, even inviting followers to email him directly if they need to find one.
Getting to the clinics isn’t simple for many people, though. Despite its Motor City reputation, about one-quarter of residents don’t own a vehicle, according to 2016 census data. The carless instead rely on friends, public transportation and their feet to get places.
Yes, when Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions, was turned into a vast vaccination clinic for eight weeks this spring, about 275,000 people showed up — but most came in from the suburbs. Only about 7 percent were Detroit residents, according to the Detroit News, and when the clinic ended last month, it had fallen about 60,000 vaccinations short of its 335,000 target.
Many Detroiters might not have been able to get to Ford Field without considerable trouble, but many of them also might not have even known about the clinic. Detroit is a city where census data indicates that as of 2019, 36 percent of residents didn’t have Internet access at home. Yet official covid messaging in Detroit has largely been done through live streams, social media, an online covid dashboard and news releases.
Even the vaccine information that Haddad and others offered might not have reached many of its intended recipients. But Haddad doesn’t fault the city, saying, “They’ve thrown an enormous amount of resources and innovation at the issue.”
And the campaign continues, now looping in sports teams. Members of the Detroit Tigers, one of the first Major League Baseball teams to reach an 85 percent vaccination threshold, have taped public service announcements. The team recently offered two free tickets to anyone who took part in a vaccination clinic across from Comerica Park.
Billboards have gone up, and the city’s Good Neighbor program awards a $50 gift card to anyone who drives a friend to a clinic to get vaccinated. There are now vaccination spots in different parts of the city, and free rides abound, in acknowledgment of the challenges those who don’t own a car face.
It’s too bad many of these measures weren’t rolled out much sooner. As in politics, where candidates need to win Detroit to win the state, Michigan simply can’t achieve its vaccine goals without Detroit.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) repeatedly talked about reaching a 70 percent vaccination rate among residents age 16 and older by July 1, when statewide restrictions were supposed to come off. But on Thursday, she announced that she’ll lift restrictions this Tuesday, even though Michigan is 10 percentage points short of that goal. No more mask mandates, limits on the number of people in a store or restaurant, or on the size of gatherings. That feels like a gamble, especially for Detroit.
The city lately has been fortunate to track along with a general decline of new infections across the state. But the low vaccination rate could leave residents vulnerable to a spike that might occur as things loosen up.
“I can only encourage. I can’t force. I can’t mandate,” Detroit’s public health chief, Denise Fair, said last month. “But at some point, Detroiters have to make the decision to get vaccinated.”
This state of affairs is especially lamentable because Detroit, before the pandemic hit, was undergoing a fledgling renaissance, in defiance of those who wrote it off as a lost cause following the city’s 2013 bankruptcy. Now, with covid variants spreading in the United States, Detroit could be writing itself a prescription for yet another covid outbreak, unless more shots land in arms.