MADISON – Gov. Tony Evers and seven other Democratic governors are asking federal health officials to release more doses of COVID-19 vaccine to their states, alleging the Trump administration is holding back the shots.
“While some of these life-saving vaccines are sitting in Pfizer freezers, our nation is losing 2,661 Americans each day, according to the latest seven-day average,” the governors wrote in a Jan. 8 letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. “The failure to distribute these doses to states who request them is unconscionable and unacceptable.”
Soon after the letter was published, President-elect Joe Biden announced a plan to stop holding back doses, as the Trump administration has done.
Federal officials with the Trump administration have been holding back enough vaccine doses to guarantee booster shots to everyone who got the first dose.
Biden’s transition team said Friday that it doesn’t make sense to hold back vaccine at a time when more American’s are dying than at any point in the pandemic. Instead, they want to get shots into more arms, then follow up with second doses later.
Biden spokesman T.J. Ducklo said in a statement sent to USA TODAY that Biden “supports releasing available doses immediately, and believes the government should stop holding back vaccine supply so we can get more shots in Americans’ arms now.”
Track COVID-19 in Wisconsin:See the latest numbers and trends
The Democratic governors said agreements with vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna to acquire another 100 million vaccine doses from each company, in conjunction with expected emergency use authorizations of vaccines from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, “should give you the utmost confidence that the manufacturing pipeline is robust, safe, and capable of protecting a majority of the America public in the coming year.”
A spokeswoman for HHS did not respond to questions from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The governors’ letter comes as Wisconsin lags some of its Midwestern neighbors in getting shots to residents. Of the eight states seeking the extra doses, Wisconsin ranks seventh in getting at least a first dose of the vaccine out.
Out of the Midwest states, Wisconsin is second-lowest when it comes to how much vaccine it has received per capita, according to CDC data from Friday.
As of Friday, state health officials reported that they had administered 123,402 doses out of 323,575 doses that are currently available for use, which includes roughly 56,900 doses specifically reserved for Wisconsin nursing homes.
Many of the 200,173 doses that have not been administered are probably still in the shipping process, DHS officials said, while the rest are slated to be used this week.
Mixed reviews on rollout communication
The Department of Health Services provides local health departments daily updates on vaccine distribution details and hold weekly forums with local and tribal health officials to provide the latest information on the rollout.
It also provides weekly webinars to answer questions about the rollout, according to DHS.
The rollout, which is in its fourth week, has been criticized by some private practice doctors, firefighters and assisted living facility directors who said they have been confused about when and how to get vaccinated.
On Friday, Franklin Mayor Steve Olson expressed frustration about what he said was a lack of communication from state health officials to Wisconsin’s hundreds of local health departments.
“Something this serious needs to have much better coordination and cooperation and communication,” Olson said. “It’s been disjointed and hasn’t been to the level that needs to happen for a pandemic.”
All local health departments receive the DHS updates and forum invitations, according to the department.
Olson pointed to states like Michigan, which has activated many of its local health departments to start vaccinating senior citizens ages 65 and over.
“We’re all going through this for the first time, at least in terms of us experiencing the pandemic,” Olson said. “But I know my health officer and health officers in Milwaukee County have their acts together. They’re ready to go. Give us the vaccines.”
But Milwaukee officials have had a different experience than Olson.
Interim Milwaukee Health Commissioner Marlaina Jackson on Thursday anticipated that the amount of the vaccine administered in the state would start to increase “pretty dramatically” as long-term care facilities receive vaccinations.
“There’s lots of information and articles around the timeliness of vaccine being shipped and administered,” she told the Common Council’s Public Safety and Health Committee Thursday. “It’s important to know that the state has I think rightfully so decided to — a lot of the vaccine that looks like it’s not being administered is right now being held for the long-term care facilities pharmacy program, which starts this week.”
The City of Milwaukee this week received its first 100 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and anticipates receiving another 800 next week.
The state, she said, has been very flexible in working with the city at an “accelerated pace” to ensure the city received the Pfizer vaccine and received it in multiple shipments due to limited freezer space to store doses.
Milwaukee officials hope to open the Wisconsin Center District on Tuesday as a vaccination site for those in the first group prioritized to receive the coronavirus vaccine — city employees working at COVID-19 testing sites, health department employees and firefighters who provide emergency medical response,
The city’s goal is to vaccinate Group 1A recipients by the end of January, Mayor Tom Barrett said.
Wisconsin health officials have chosen to keep the first phase of the rollout relatively limited, in an effort to avoid long lines of people clamoring for vaccines, like in Florida.
But increasingly, some hospitals are reporting having extra doses on hand because of reluctance among nurses and doctors to be vaccinated.
At a Friday meeting of the State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee, which oversees the state’s vaccine distribution effort, several members raised the issue as the committee moved closer to determining which groups of people will make up the next phase of Wisconsin’s vaccine program.
“Across the state there are some health systems and clinics where there has been incredibly low uptake among nursing staff, among medical assistants, and so on,” said UW-Madison’s Dr. Jonathan Temte.
As a result, some Wisconsin hospitals have offered vaccines to non-patient-facing employees who may work from home in administration or other departments, raising questions of fairness.
In a statement Friday, Ascension officials said “vaccine hesitancy continues to be a problem.”
“Ascension Wisconsin has associates who both work from home and also enter health care settings in their role and have the potential for direct or indirect exposure to patients or infectious materials,” the statement said. “These individuals are health care personnel eligible for vaccination in accordance with CDC and DHS guidance.”
Phase 1A of the vaccine program includes only health care personnel and long-term care facilities. Wisconsin’s State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee has defined “health care personnel” as people who provide “direct patient service” or who may come into contact with patients or “infectious material” that contains the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
DHS spokeswoman Jennifer Miller said in an email Friday that vaccinating entities have some flexibility in how they prioritize vaccines.
“We have been clear with our vaccinators about who the intended recipients are of the vaccine in this phase,” Miller wrote. “We do know that sometimes to use all doses of thawed vaccine, some people outside of Phase 1A may receive a vaccine.”
Phase 1B comes into focus
Meanwhile on Friday, the vaccine distribution panel moved closer to finalizing who will qualify for the next phase of the vaccine program.
At the meeting’s conclusion, most people on the 17-member vaccine subcommittee favored a plan that would cover people who are 70 years old and up, teachers, first responders, incarcerated people, corrections workers and those in congregate living in the next round.
The phase is also likely to include mink farm workers, due to evidence that minks are particularly susceptible to animal-to-human and human-to-animal coronavirus transmission.
The process to finalize who qualifies for Phase 1B could take several weeks.
Alison Dirr and Sophie Carson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.