Senate passes small COVID relief plan, Dem calls it ‘callous cruelty fueled by elitism and racism’ 

Bill would force state to ignore race, income in vaccine distribution

By: - February 25, 2021 3:36 pm

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

After fierce partisan debate on the floor, the GOP-led Michigan Senate voted along party lines Thursday to adopt a $727 million supplemental funding bill packed with controversial Republican amendments.

Those amendments to Senate Bill 114 include a measure to prohibit Michigan from acknowledging race and socio-economic factors while distributing COVID-19 vaccines, and a Right to Life of Michigan-backed requirement that residents must be notified if fetal tissue was used in development of vaccines — something also included in a House-passed plan.

SB 114 passed by a vote of 20-15 after numerous Democratic lawmakers tried and failed to pass their own amendments striking the language from the bill.

Democrats were also outraged that the funding bill — which doles out millions in federal funds for COVID-related actions like testing and distribution — doles out just some of the allotted federal funds to Michiganders and does so in pieces. 

State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) described the legislation as “callous cruelty fueled by elitism and racism.”

“The [GOP] majority of this chamber said to the people of Michigan: ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.’ Or rather, ‘let them eat cake,’” Geiss said. “… For shame. Shame. Shame. This type of treachery and torture of our residents cannot stand.”

Whitmer and Republicans have not struck a deal on new COVID spending, with the governor advocating for the Legislature to allocate all federal funds now.

Whitmer again urged the Legislature to pass a relief plan during her news conference Wednesday, warning that delays hurt efforts to offer in-person learning in schools by March 1.

“If the Legislature does not act to pass the recovery plan, Michigan will not be able to keep up with the testing demand from students, student-athletes, school staff, and teachers for much longer,” she said. “We need the Legislature to do their job and pass the COVID recovery plan so we can keep purchasing these critical antigen tests.”

On Wednesday, state Sens. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) and Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) had led the Senate Appropriations Committee in passing the SB 114 amendment regarding race and income as factors in vaccine distribution. That amendment was voted out of committee along party lines and ended up passing the whole Senate on Thursday.

The senators had attacked the nationally recognized Social Vulnerability Index (SVI). The state uses the SVI to determine where vaccine distribution should go, not who is eligible for the vaccine.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first crafted the SVI in the 1970s to reflect the disproportionate stresses to human health caused by factors like socio-economic status, minority status, household composition or housing type and transportation.

The Whitmer administration has made an effort to acknowledge how factors like race and income impact COVID-19 outcomes. People of color and low income residents are disproportionately affected by these social vulnerabilities, which makes them particularly susceptible to worse health outcomes during COVID-19.

Indeed, Michiganders of color continue to face higher rates of death from the virus, as state Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit) and other Democrats pointed out.

According to new data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), white people in the state are about twice as likely to be vaccinated for COVID-19 than Black Michiganders.

Additionally, many Michigan counties with the highest poverty rates are rural counties represented by GOP lawmakers.

But Barrett argued that distributing vaccines with the SVI in mind is “inequitable,” “biased” and based on “social justice” rather than science. He said the state should instead rely on census data without factors like race and income attached to it.

Runestad falsely claimed that 20-year-olds in perfect health who are minorities and “don’t speak English that well” have a higher priority for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine than residents 65 years and older and those with underlying health conditions.

In Michigan, health care workers, other essential frontline workers and individuals 65 years and older are currently eligible to be inoculated. The next phase of Michigan’s vaccination rollout (ages 18 to 64 with underlying risk factors) is expected to start at the end of April or early May.

The state also has a special initiative to distribute more vaccine supply in regions that had a higher COVID-19 mortality rate over the past year to those over 60 years old.

State Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) said the amendment would harm communities of color in the state that are already struggling to receive enough vaccinations.

I think that we need to be very cautious, again, as I said before, about how we present information in this body, and also making sure that we’re not disproportionately impacting communities of color and communities throughout Michigan,” Santana said.

“We already have a lack of vaccines in the state and it’s not about one community getting a vaccine over another. … This [amendment] is not necessary, because it’s already an upward [battle] to get people educated just to want to get vaccinated as it is,” Santana added.

State Sen. Curtis Hertel (D-East Lansing) also warned that, should the amendment go through, fewer vaccines in general would be allocated to Michigan. He said scientists, not lawmakers, should be making these decisions.

“My suggestion, again, is that there are doctors and other people that actually determine these kinds of things. There’s a CDC that actually determines these kinds of things,” Hertel said.

“There’s a CDC that actually determines how many vaccines we get based on our own rules, and then maybe the state Legislature that knows almost nothing about this other than the slideshow they saw, shouldn’t be the ones that are actually setting policy here.”

On the floor Thursday, Democrats and Republicans continued to spar over which regions of the state should be prioritized for vaccine distribution and how federal money should be spent.

State Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) criticized Democratic members for believing that money is a “magic bullet” to end the pandemic. Other GOP members complained that they were unfairly being called “racist” for opposing the SVI.

This pandemic won’t end just because you want it to, and the longer that we break off critical vaccine funding into pieces, the longer this pandemic will go on. People deserve 100% of our vaccination efforts in federal funding, not partial support,” said state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit).

A DHHS spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).