Police and firefighters will be eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine starting next week, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services announced Monday, marking the state’s transition into the second phase of the vaccine rollout.
Wisconsin is in the midst of vaccinating more than half a million health care workers and long-term care residents as part of Phase 1A, with priority given to frontline hospital staff and skilled nursing facilities.
“Operationally, this is a seamless way to begin our movement into Phase 1B, since our police and fire departments are already working so closely with EMS and our local and tribal health departments across the state,” DHS deputy director Julie Willems Van Dijk said at a press briefing Monday.
Technically, the State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee, which oversees Wisconsin’s vaccine distribution effort, has not yet finalized which groups of people will be included in the second round of vaccinations.
That process, which must include a public comment period and a committee vote, could take a few more weeks. As of Friday, the committee was looking to include police and firefighters, people who are 70 years old and up, teachers, incarcerated people, corrections workers and those in congregate living.
Willems Van Dijk said DHS still plans to review the committee’s advice for Phase 1B as well as the public comments, but moved forward with firefighters and police because it was highly likely they would be included anyway. The committee’s recommendations are not binding.
“It’s a balancing act between this important process and keeping the vaccine moving,” Willem Van Dijk said.
Last week, some firefighters and paramedics said they were frustrated that they had not yet been able to access the vaccine. According to health officials, EMS personnel are considered part of Phase 1A because their primary job is medical response, but the majority of firefighters and police are not licensed as EMS.
Josh Morby, spokesman for the Wisconsin EMS Association, called the announcement “great news.”
“The fact that DHS announced they’re already putting together a plan to move onto Phase 1B is good news for us, because it means they have enough vaccinations or have a line on enough vaccinations to address those in Phase 1A,” he said.
As of Monday, the state health department reported administering 151,518 vaccine doses, including more than 11,000 second doses. That’s roughly half of the doses that have been shipped to Wisconsin or provided to pharmacies for long-term care facilities.
The Journal Sentinel is tracking the progress of the vaccine rollout on its COVID-19 data page here.
When asked why the state hasn’t used up all of its available doses, Willem Van Dijk said about two-thirds of the available doses are technically still in the shipping process and the rest are set to be used this week.
She estimated vaccines will become available to the general public around late spring to early summer.
“It’s something we’ll know better week by week as we move along,” she said.
The announcement that Wisconsin was moving to the next phase of the vaccination program comes as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths begin to rise again in the state.
The seven-day average for cases hit its lowest point in 3 months Dec. 26 after the fall spike, but has been rising since. The state reported 1,456 new cases Monday and five more deaths.
Gov. Tony Evers and state health officials have repeatedly said the state is limited by the supply of vaccine it is receiving from the federal government.
The state is currently administering around 70,000 doses per week, but needs 125,000 per week to reach President-elect Joe Biden’s goal of 1 million doses per day, health officials said.
On Monday, Evers again called on the federal government to increase the amount of doses in the state’s weekly allocations. For the first time since the rollout began, vaccinators in Wisconsin asked for more doses than the state had in supply, he said.
“In a state where our statewide mitigation strategies have been struck down and challenged time and time again, it is absolutely critical that Wisconsin get additional doses of vaccine to meet demand and box in the virus,” the governor said in a statement.
Evers was also part of a coalition of Midwest governors who sent a letter to the federal government asking for additional vaccine last week.