MADISON – The Evers administration won’t mandate COVID-19 vaccinations and neither will employers of health care workers — at least initially.
Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm said Thursday the administration has no plans to mandate that employers require vaccinations for health care workers or for anyone else in the state.
“Decisions around taking the vaccine are individual decisions and decisions of that particular employer,” Palm told reporters in response to a question about whether the administration would mandate vaccinations for workers in long-term care facilities.
But Palm added, “we want to make sure it is as widely available as quickly as possible so we are anxious for our allotments to continue to grow.”
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The first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine are expected to arrive in Wisconsin within days and will likely be distributed to health care workers who treat or are exposed to COVID-19 patients.
Hospital systems mandate employees receive flu vaccines but officials say they won’t do the same with COVID-19 at this point.
“We are going to strongly recommend that people get the vaccine. We’re not going to mandate it, but we’re going to recommend it,” said Robert Citronberg, executive medical director of infectious disease and prevention for Advocate Aurora Health. “Because we feel that the benefit of the vaccine far outweighs the risk from what we know about it so far. So we are going to definitely encourage it, but not mandate it.”
One reason health care employers are treating the two types of vaccines differently is the COVID-19 vaccine will be available under an emergency use authorization when the Food and Drug Administration allows vaccines that have not undergone the typical approval process to be used during health emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic.
Assembly Republicans put forward a package of proposals this week aimed at addressing COVID-19, which includes a provision that would bar Evers from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations.
Evers said in September he believes requiring vaccinations “is the right thing” but that he didn’t know whether it would be feasible in the current political environment.
“I believe we’ll get to a point where the vast, vast majority of people will take it,” he said during a Milwaukee Press Club event.
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Ascension Wisconsin, the second-largest health system in Wisconsin, requires its employees to get flu vaccinations with some exceptions but officials there and at several health systems did not say whether they supported barring the same requirement for COVID-19 vaccines.
ThedaCare, based in the Fox Valley, requires all employees, volunteers, students, contracted staff and other people in their facilities to be vaccinated against influenza, but officials there won’t make it mandatory for COVID-19.
Cassandra Wallace, spokeswoman for ThedaCare, said the system will be recommending employees get it “to protect themselves, our patients and the community,” however.
Wallace said personal protective equipment will continue to be required regardless of employees’ vaccination status.
Employees of the Froedtert and Medical College of Wisconsin health network also won’t be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 when doses are available.
And Emily Kumlien, spokeswoman for UW Health, said employees are required to be vaccinated against influenza but that the same requirement would not be in place for the COVID-19 vaccine.
“At this time, UW Health will strongly encourage, but not require providers and staff to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. However, those who decline it will be required to complete a declination form citing the reason,” Kumlein said.
Patrick Remington, a former epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s preventive medicine residency program, said highly transmissible diseases like COVID-19 require high rates of immunity to achieve what’s known as herd immunity, when a population is protected from a disease because enough people around them are immune.
Remington said ideally that rate would be between 80% to 85%.
“But it also depends on personal protection and public health response, so if you had people wearing masks and social distancing you could get by with lower rates,” he said. “If we don’t have that and if people assume the vaccine is around and people become careless again, then the higher rate would need to be required.”
Guy Boulton and Mary Spicuzza of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.
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