What a tangled web they weave.
Mayor Andy Schor, City Council President Peter Spadafore and First Ward Councilman Brandon Betz all got caught cutting the line for the COVID-19 vaccine, putting themselves ahead of tens of thousands of frontline workers, vulnerable senior citizens and people with pre-existing conditions in getting the first of two injections that will protect them from the deadly disease. It was a profoundly selfish move. All three should know better. None has apologized. Instead, the three civic leaders chose to weave fanciful narratives and high-minded justifications to explain away their errors in judgment. Even worse, their stories and excuses are mutating nearly as fast as the coronavirus itself.
After City Pulse spilled the beans on his secret vaccination, Mayor Schor quickly dispatched his spokeswoman to issue a statement asserting that the mayor had received no “special treatment” even though it was obvious he got special treatment. Schor went on to explain that he took the shot to set an example for others. Since he didn’t publicly disclose that he had received the vaccine, we’re not sure who he thought was going to see him setting that example.
Schor then claimed the vaccine that he and 199 other city employees received would have gone to waste if they did not use them “within hours.” This is plainly false. We now know that the vaccination offer from Sparrow Health System was extended to the city by email on a Wednesday. The shots weren’t administered until the following Saturday. There is no plausible scenario under which Sparrow could know that several hundred doses of the vaccine would be going bad three days ahead of time. Let’s call Schor’s claim what it is — a lie.
As for Council President Spadafore, because he refuses to identify who provided him his shot, we are left to speculate about whether it was an urgent case of having to use an expiring vaccine, or if it was simply another case of preferential treatment. Spadafore’s lack of transparency on this point is yet another disappointment, on top of his attempted deception over having received a shot at all. After first denying to this newspaper that he got the shot, Spadafore called us back and changed his story. On his Facebook page, he then posted a lengthy rationalization — since deleted — which included the thoroughly absurd claim that he “ethically couldn’t say no” to taking the vaccine when it was offered. Quite the opposite, Mr. President. You had an ethical duty to decline the shot because you weren’t eligible for it. You also had a moral obligation to ask your “private medical provider” to give the shot to a senior citizen or essential worker. You failed on both counts.
Sparrow Health System also has some explaining to do. The idea that one of the region’s top health care providers had to turn to the mayor and City Council members for a vaccine “pilot project” is laughable. We presume their real motive was using their access to the vaccine to provide preferential treatment to powerful public officials as a way to curry political favor. This sort of backroom dealing erodes public trust and falls far beneath the standards of integrity that should govern the institution. Those who made the decisions to enable the bad behavior of our public officials should be held accountable.
To their credit, we note that six of the eight City Council members either missed or had the good sense to decline the opportunity to get the vaccination offered by Sparrow. Although we don’t often agree with her, long-time At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood was the most forthright, noting that she declined the vaccination because she thought of the many senior citizens in Lansing who have yet to receive the shot. Kudos to Wood, who is eligible for the vaccine by virtue of her age, for putting the people she serves ahead of her own interests.
This debacle also gives rise to more serious concerns about the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine in our community and across the state. For folks who don’t have privileged access to the vaccine, signing up to get a shot requires navigating a complex system involving multiple agencies and multiple waiting lists. It is far more complicated than it needs to be. The lack of a coordinated, transparent and accountable system for vaccine distribution also contributed mightily to enabling high-ranking public officials to cut the line, a practice that we suspect is far more widespread than the public is aware.
Michigan officials should look to West Virginia for an example of how to do it right. Early on, the state established a statewide pre-registry to sign up for shots. They recently rolled out a statewide appointment system that provides a one-stop shop for people seeking the vaccination. Distribution of the vaccine is based on five regional hubs across the state and the National Guard is tasked with distributing the vaccines to each hub. From there, a network of local pharmacies works to get shots in arms, a process that began with the residents and staff of long-term care facilities and was completed before many states had even started their vaccination programs. The efficiency of the West Virginia system is the reason for its successful approach.
Whitmer would also be wise to counsel Lynn Sutfin, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, who glibly excused public officials cutting in line by saying it’s important to get shots in arms, even if it means going outside the priority system. This sends a dangerous message that vaccinations for the privileged few are just fine, so carry on.
Let’s be clear: it is not fine. It is a travesty and it needs to stop.