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Senate OKs $2B in virus aid, targets vaccine distribution

Senate OKs $2B in virus aid, targets vaccine distribution
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Republicans who control the Michigan Senate moved Thursday to stop the state from distributing additional COVID-19 vaccine doses to more vulnerable communities, saying race and socioeconomic status should not be factors.

Democrats said the provision, included in a $2 billion coronavirus relief funding plan that was approved on party lines, is “unconscionable.”

The state health department is adjusting populated-based allocations of doses with a “social vulnerability index” multiplier, which includes indicators such as poverty, unemployment, minority status, lack of transportation and crowded housing. The formula benefits places such as Detroit and many rural areas, but would effectively result in fewer vaccines for wealthier communities including suburban Oakland and Washtenaw counties.

The state Department of Health and Human Services says not all populations are equally at risk for being infected or suffering adverse outcomes.

“The highest risk factor for serious complications from COVID is age. Let’s do the right thing and distribute this vaccine based on COVID vulnerability, not social vulnerability,” said Sen. Tom Barrett, a Charlotte Republican.

But Sen. Erika Geiss, a Taylor Democrat, said the index is being used because “the very people who are being protected by it ... are the same people who are more vulnerable to COVID.” She said when residents in the Detroit area were getting sick and dying when the pandemic struck last year, people outstate were calling the virus a hoax and saying masks do not matter.

“Now you want to jump to the front of the line? It’s absolutely unconscionable,” she said.

The $2 billion spending legislation — much of it federal aid enacted by Congress and then-President Donald Trump in late 2020 — is less than half of the $5.6 billion proposed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The bills were sent to the GOP-controlled House, which passed a near-$3.6 billion plan weeks ago and also wants to keep federal funding in reserve over objections from Democrats who say it all should be released now.

The Senate proposes boosting a $2 hourly wage hike for direct care workers, now set to expire Sunday, to $2.25 and extending it through Sept. 30. There would be $1.2 billion for K-12 education, including the use of state funding to ensure every district gets a minimum $450 boost per student for pandemic costs, and $672 million for vaccine distribution, COVID-19 testing and emergency rental assistance.