Sean McCann is “Kalamaglued” to his community and is proud of its role in the Pfizer vaccine, but understands frustrations over short supply.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Like many graduates of Western Michigan University, State Sen. Sean McCann (D-Kalamazoo) remained in the county—a phenomenon called the “Kalamaglue effect.” McCann loves that name for it. And the pride he takes in his community and constituents shows just how sticky that glue has been for him.

From his time in the Western Student Association in college and as a state representative in the Michigan Senate, McCann has been devoted to representing Kalamazooians. However, the coronavirus’ emergence in 2020 rapidly shifted what representing his community meant. 

“Obviously the thing no one imagined to sign up for was the COVID pandemic,”  McCann explained to The ‘Gander. “That has been the item that has been front and center on the stove, a flaming pan that has taken up all the time and energy.”

But even with the stove in flames, McCann is proud of the community that has so captivated him for years. Because Kalamazoo has the fire extinguisher. 

A Vaccine in the Backyard

Kalamazoo is home to the Pfizer plant producing their vaccine for the coronavirus. In fact, it was the Kalamazoo plant that produced the test doses of the vaccine that were instrumental in the drug’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. 

That isn’t to say Kalamazoo hasn’t had its share of road bumps in vaccinating residents. It trails many Michigan counties on reaching new phases of distribution. McCann understands the tension between the pride in Pfizer and the frustrations with the rollout that people in Kalamazoo County feel.

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“Even if we said we would inoculate the hometown production crew ahead of other folks that might even raise some eyebrows,” said McCann. “I think there would be some good cause to say, ‘look, these are the people making the vaccine, we need to make sure we have a very healthy community supporting that.’ But that just doesn’t seem to be the case right now.” 

That’s the nature of a global pandemic, McCann said. Patience and working within the distribution system are key. And there’s pride to be had in their community’s role in inoculating Americans nationwide. 

“Pfizer makes the doses as fast as they can and they get distributed across the nation, and hopefully into people’s arms as fast as they can,” he said. “We all want to sort of drive up to the front door of Pfizer ‘cause it’s a couple miles away and see if we can’t get set up with vaccines, but that’s obviously not the way the distribution is being handled.”

The Waters of Kalamazoo

There are a lot of folk etymologies for what the word Kalamazoo means, but a common thread is that it was a colonial corruption of an indigenous culture’s word relating to water. As such, the community takes great pride in its waterways, and in the Kalamazoo River in particular. 

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But in 2010, the Kalamazoo River was the site of the worst inland oil spill in American history, with nearly a million gallons pouring from an Enbridge pipeline into tributaries of the Kalamazoo and causing it to forever stain tree trunks and creating lasting damage to the riverbed. The cleanup effort for the spill took years and, itself, caused havoc in the small town of Marshall, where crews cleaning the river were based. 

That disaster informs McCann’s perspective on environmental issues and the importance of clean water in Michigan. It fuels his passion fighting against Line 5, another Enbridge oil pipeline that could have an even more devastating impact on the Great Lakes if it ruptured like Line 6 did in Kalamazoo.

And that was followed by high polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination in Parchment, a neighboring community north of Kalamazoo. PFAS are a family of artificial chemicals that are highly toxic and persist for a long time in both the environment and the human body, used in a variety of things that resist heat, water, oil or stains. Contamination of drinking water with PFAS is extremely dangerous.

Parchment’s PFAS level in 2018 was 26 times higher than the maximum value determined by federal safety standards.

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“They had to shut their whole water system down, basically, and hook up to the City of Kalamazoo’s system to get off of PFAS,” he said. “We just got a preliminary report of new PFAS sources near our airport, which makes sense … so we need to keep getting a handle on that.”

He explained that firefighting foam used at airports relies on PFAS to resist heat, and the foam is frequently stored at airports nationwide, including the one in Kalamazoo.

“Delivering clean and safe drinking water to homes is part of our everyday survival and is paramount in terms of not only our community, but our state,” McCann told The ‘Gander. “You turn on the tap, you need to be able to drink safe water.”