ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mac Elliott said during the board’s Dec. 10 meeting that he’s ready to declare a state of emergency at a moment’s notice once the county starts receiving the vaccine doses for COVID-19.
That was expected to happen soon after the meeting, and on Dec. 11 the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. The drug company began shipping out doses of the vaccine from its Portage, Mich., plant on Dec. 13.
Elliott said that he can declare a state of emergency with only his signature for seven days.
“Our local declaration can enable us to mobilize the emergency operations center to provide assistance in the distribution of the vaccine,” he said after the meeting.
During the Dec. 10 meeting, commissioners approved an agreement between the Berrien County Health Department and Lakeland Hospitals at Niles and St. Joseph for temporary storage of the Pfizer vaccine, which must be stored at 77 degrees below zero or colder to remain viable.
Commissioner Ezra Scott gave a report on his Dec. 8 visit to Washington, D.C., where he took part in the coronavirus summit with the members of Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership aimed at accelerating the development, manufacturing and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Berrien County is slated to receive 992 vaccines in its first shipment. After that, Scott said the county is expected to receive weekly shipments of the vaccine, which requires two doses per person.
He said Army Gen. Gus Perna was put in charge of logistics for the vaccine distribution because the private companies involved in the distribution will have access to military satellites for GPS tracking.
“They say ... 24/7 they can see where that package is within three feet, so they know when it gets out,” he said.
Scott said that by the end of February, about 20 million Americans are expected to be vaccinated. By mid-summer, Scott said the number of Americans vaccinated is expected to be more than 100 million.
Prior to leaving for Washington Scott said has been invited to meet with top officials in the nation’s capitol so many times, he’s lost track.
He noted that Dec. 8 was the fifth or sixth time he’s traveled to D.C., adding that the emailed invitation came directly from the White House and states that it is not transferable
“I’m very humbled to be part of this,” he said after the Dec. 3 Berrien County Board of Commissioners meeting, where commissioners agreed to pay his travel expenses.
Both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence participated in the Operation Warp Speed summit, held in the executive office building at the White House complex.
“I’m going to use the opportunity to advocate for 150,000 vials (of vaccine) just for Berrien County,” he said prior to the summit. “I understand that the president doesn’t like our governor. That’s whatever it is. I don’t care about that. I’m looking at Berrien County.
“I just like to take the politics out of it,” he said. “When I’m going there, I’m going for a particular reason. If I’m invited, I’m going. And then I’m going to advocate for Berrien County.”
The first time he traveled to Washington, D.C., was with six other county commissioners in 2017, when they heard presentations and talked with Trump’s top administrative team.
Scott said no other president before Trump had invited county commissioners to do that.
“He wanted to hear from boots on the ground,” Scott said.
During his visits, Scott has made multiple contacts and learned about grants that the county can apply for.
“Without Washington contacts, we never would have known about many of these grants,” he said. “... These are tax dollars that are available. If we don’t apply for them in Berrien County, they will go to someone else.”
Scott said he’s also used these contacts to help cut through red tape.
For example, he said it took New Buffalo Township officials 18 months to get permits from Amtrak so they could run a water line under the railroad tracks to a subdivision.
He said that work started in 2019, but was quickly shut down after an Amtrak line supervisor said they were missing a permit for a particular survey.
When township officials contacted Amtrak, they were told that they would have to start the entire permitting process all over again because there were 80 other applications in front of their application.
That’s when township officials called Scott for help.
Scott said he called his contact for Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao at the White House and found out that that portion of the tracks was also under the control of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He said his contact already had plans to speak with the heads of both departments that evening.
The next day, he said his contact called him back.
“He told me that they decided that rather than have both offices call Amtrak to expedite this, they felt that the best thing to do is only have one office call, so that call will be made by the office of the vice president of the United States,” he said.
The very next day, he said he got a call from New Buffalo Township Clerk Judy Zabicki, who told him that Amtrak had just faxed her office the new permit so the job could be completed.
“She calls me her junk yard dog,” Scott said. “She says, ‘The dog did it again.’”
Scott said this reduced the permit process from 18 months to two days.
Why do officials in Washington keep inviting him to meetings?
“I speak my mind. I’m not afraid to say anything,” he said. “... But I try to do it in the right way. I try to be respectful of others because I want them to respect me.”
He said that many people get awestruck when they are with the top government officials and spend their time trying to get photos with them, which he called an “okey doke.”
“The only one that I did was with (Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) Ben Carson, and he insisted on that,” Scott said. “ ... But that’s not what I’m there for. While they’re doing that, I’m talking with their senior aides.”
Also on Dec. 10, County Commissioners announced that a plan is in place so local elected bodies can continue meeting virtually in January if state legislators don’t take action before the end of the year.
“The message to go out to all units of government is that we will, if necessary, make an emergency declaration so that as we head into the 2021 calendar year, they will be able to meet virtually in the event that the legislature fails to extend the modification to the Open Meetings Act, which will expire at the end of this month,” Elliott said.
If needed, he said commissioners can declare a state of emergency for the entire county during their last meeting of the year, which was changed from Dec. 31 to Dec. 30. The virtual meeting will start at 10:30 a.m. and can be viewed on the county’s YouTube channel.
Commissioners are also ready to meet on that date if they need to finalize how money from the CARES Act is spent, which has a Dec. 31 deadline.
Elliott said the Dec. 30 meeting will be cancelled if it is not needed.
State legislators amended the Open Meetings Act to allow elected bodies to meet virtually for any reason through Dec. 31. Between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2021, the amendment allows public bodies to meet remotely if a statewide or local state of emergency or state of disaster has been declared.
Most elected bodies have been holding online meetings since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Elliott said the local emergency declaration can be for 90 days and can be cancelled if the state legislature takes action.
The Michigan House canceled all voting sessions this week due to a staffer testing positive for COVID-19. It is unknown if the state House will meet for its final voting days next week before it adjourns for the year.