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Michigan grocery store workers await COVID-19 vaccine eligibility

"What we were told this whole time is 'you're essential, you're a hero, you're awesome,' and now I'm like okay, so that means I can get a vaccine now, right?"

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Grocery store workers who continued coming into work as COVID-19 spread through the state say the wait for vaccine eligibility is becoming 'frustrating,' nearly three months into the rollout. 

"What we were told this whole time is 'you're essential, you're a hero, you're awesome,' and now I'm like okay, so that means I can get a vaccine now, right?" said Jenny V., who works at a large retailer in Grand Rapids. 

Jenny said she felt hopeful when news first came of the Pfizer and Bio-N-Tech COVID-19 vaccine after spending months working in fear of when she may contract the virus. 

"It made sense to me to do, you know, health care personnel first," she said. "People that are literally fighting it day in and day out."

But, as the vaccine has expanded out to more people since mid-December it's become harder.

"I don't necessarily begrudge anyone else who has gotten one before me, but it's definitely frustrating," Jenny said. 

Aside from being deemed essential, Jenny had expected that grocery store workers would be prioritized further due to the general lack of available sick days and health insurance in this industry. 

"I feel like we are the people who we're more likely to come into work, even if we're not feeling good," she said.

Grocery workers are estimated to account for about 56,500 people in the state, according to the Department of Technology, Management & Budget. 

Grocery store workers and a list of other essential workers set by federal guidelines, including public transit workers, U.S. postal service workers and critical manufacturing workers, fall in the state's Phase 1B Group C. 

As of March 5, it's estimated this group will be eligible for the vaccine in May, though the timeline continues to shift based on vaccine supply. 

The vaccine rollout started out slower than expected, and supply continues to be outweighed by demand. 

The initial prioritization guidance has changed over the course of the last two and a half months. On Monday, people 50 years old and older with pre-existing conditions or disabilities, as well as, family caregivers who care for children with special health needs will become eligible. 

A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said accelerating vaccination for the two new populations Monday was "due to concern around disparity of life expectancy and in an effort to remove barriers to vaccine access."

The announcement also came after President Joe Biden said that there would be enough doses for 300 million people by the end of May.

"Recognizing the recent update to the federal plan to increase production MDHHS is in active discussions finalizing our plan and will announce the next round of eligibility in the near future," said Lynn Sutfin.

On March 22, everyone 50 years old and older will become eligible. On March 1, people who work in agriculture and food processing industries became eligible. 

RELATED: Farm, agriculture workers to be eligible for COVID-19 vaccine starting in March

Though more supply is arriving into the state between the Pfizer, Moderna and newly-approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Local health departments and hospitals still have deep waitlists with people who are currently eligible.

On Wednesday, Spectrum Health said it had 42,000 people on its waitlist who were 65 years and older, a group that's been eligible since January 11. 

MDHHS' goal is to vaccinate 70% of residents 16 years old and older as quickly as possible. So far, 11.1% of that population has been vaccinated.

Khalid Karadsheh, one of the owners of Mediterranean Island International Foods, said all of his over 20 employees want the vaccine, only a few of them have been able to get it based on their age. He thought they'd be one of the first groups to be eligible. 

"I don't have anybody who does not want it, and everybody keeps asking me daily 'when do you think we are going to get it?" Karadsheh said. "Hopefully, soon. I'm hoping."

Over the last year, he's lost employees who feared contracting the virus. 

Karadsheh says thousands of customers come through the store each week. At the beginning of the pandemic, the shelves were routinely cleared as panic set in nationwide coupled with supply chain issues.

"Every day for two months, just cleaned us out," Karadsheh said. 

It led to anger from customers, Karadsheh said. Grocery store workers then faced anger again as they were tasked with enforcing mask mandates and social distancing orders.

Lately, Jenny says, people seem less willing to cooperate than they were. 

"A lot of people are just kind of tired of it," she said. "Tired of wearing a mask and tired of staying home and social distancing and I understand."

But, the risk is always at the front of her mind. 

"Anytime I walk past somebody who isn't wearing a mask or just has it like under their nose...I'm always like are they sick? Is today the day that I'm going to be exposed and catch it?" 

As the wait for a vaccine continues, Jenny said she hopes people will respect what grocery store workers are up against. 

"Just be nice to store employees, you know, we're doing our best," she said. 

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