MADISON – Wisconsin residents who are 65 and older could be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine shot as early as this month if state health officials adopt new federal recommendations.
A state panel overseeing the state’s vaccine rollout recommended a plan earlier this week that would deliver vaccine shots to people 70 and older regardless of their occupation or health condition in the next phase of distribution. But Department of Health Services officials are considering lowering the age to 65 based on new federal recommendations.
DHS Assistant Deputy Secretary Lisa Olson told the Assembly’s health committee on Thursday the agency is considering the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance as it goes through the approval process of who will be eligible in the next phase.
“Our current guidance is folks who are 70 and older will be next in line for the vaccine,” Olson said. “Obviously the announcement from the federal government on Tuesday to look at folks who are 65 and older as the next priority group is something we are looking at, and are very eager to move forward with.”
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Olson’s testimony was part of a five-hour hearing at the state Capitol on the state’s vaccine rollout, the speed of which was questioned by Republican lawmakers on the panel.
Vaccination timeline called ‘unacceptable’
Committee chairman Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, said it was “unacceptable” to wait until early summer to begin vaccinating the general public as Gov. Tony Evers has estimated.
At 40%, Wisconsin ranks eighth out of 12 states in the Midwest in the percentage of vaccine doses health officials have administered out of the state’s supply, according to an analysis by Bloomberg.
Olson said the state needs more doses from the federal government to ramp up vaccinations by creating clinics to administer shots to lots of people at once.
“We very much want to be moving faster and standing up our mass vaccination clinics as we get more vaccine in the state,” she said.
Wisconsin has a high long-term care population per capita compared with other states but receives its shares of vaccine through the federal Pharmacy Partnership Program based on Wisconsin’s overall population, state officials said.
As a result, the number of doses Wisconsin is required to set aside by the federal government is significantly higher than many other states, officials said. Being required to bank those doses has slowed down vaccinations, they said.
John Raymond, president of the Medical College of Wisconsin, said Wisconsin and other states won’t be able to ramp up vaccinations unless new vaccines join the market, specifically ones that don’t require ultra-cold storage like those manufactured by Pfizer.
He said comparing Wisconsin’s progress with other states’ is “is nearly meaningless in terms of achieving herd immunity” because all rates are low right now.
Raymond said if other manufacturers don’t join the effort, it could take a year to get to everyone.
Debate over prioritizing incarcerated people
The second phase plan approved Tuesday by the Wisconsin State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee vaccine panel also includes teachers and child care providers, firefighters and police officers, health care workers who don’t treat COVID-19 patients and mink farmers due to the high risk of COVID-19 outbreaks among mink.
The panel also recommended including people in shared housing facilities, like prisons — sparking outrage among some Republican lawmakers.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos blasted the idea during a response to Gov. Tony Evers’ State of the State address on Tuesday.
“Wisconsin is an embarrassment compared to other states,” Vos said. “The subcommittee met today and decided prisoners should get the vaccine before your 65-year-old grandmother.”
The majority of the panel supported the decision to recommend inmates be included in the next wave of vaccinations because Wisconsin prisons have been exceptionally susceptible to COVID-19 outbreaks.
At a Jan. 8 meeting of the committee, Department of Corrections Nursing Director Mary Muse said it would be unfair to include people living in other shared housing settings in the next phase but exclude people who are incarcerated.
Prisons have been the site of some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in Wisconsin. At least 25 prisoners have died with the coronavirus, Muse said.
“Either we just don’t understand the experience of being incarcerated and the lack of choice, or we’re really putting them as some kind of subset — and I think that is just a disparity on top of a disparity,” Muse said. “It’s difficult for me to vote for anything that does not have incarcerated populations in it.”
Committee co-chairwoman Ann Lewandowski, founder of Wisconsin Immunization Neighborhood, said members should keep in mind how the public may react to prioritizing people who are incarcerated.
“I have concerns around what acceptability for incarcerated people will be,” Lewandowski said. “I have received many offline comments. And I think that certainly for this body to be recognized as legitimate, that may be a question that needs to be answered as a political question, which needs to be answered by political people, not necessarily us.”
But fellow co-chairman Dr. Jonathan Temte, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said politics shouldn’t play a role in public health decision-making.
“It is our purview to make whatever we think is the best recommendation,” he said. “I don’t think it’s ethically acceptable to say we’re going to do congregate living but exclude the incarcerated, because by definition, that’s congregate living.”
About 20,000 inmates are in correctional facilities as of Jan. 8, and the state Department of Corrections has reported 10,451 cases of COVID-19.
Brandon Scholz, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Grocers Association, said the grocery and food supply industry is “stunned” to be left out of the next phase of vaccinations while other public-facing workers are included. He said he hopes the panel and Evers administration reconsiders.
“After being considered essential for 10 months and being held up as critical to the state getting through a pandemic, there is shock in the industry that they are no longer considered important,” he said.
Sanfelippo on Thursday criticized the state health department’s creation of the committee to determine what groups of people are included in each phase of the rollout. Olson said the department wanted the process to be in public view.
“The process that’s in place just seems overly bureaucratic and cumbersome,” Sanfelippo said. “We need to tell the public here’s the day when we expect to do this group, here’s the date when we expect to do that group. The minute we get a vaccine from the federal government, it should be in and out the next day and in someone’s arm.”
But Darren Rausch, the Greenfield Health Department director who testified on behalf of local health departments, said the biggest hurdle facing local departments, which facilitate vaccinations, is supply.
Rausch also said the public needs stronger messaging about how and when they will get vaccine shots.
“We receive dozens to hundreds of calls a day to each local health department,” Rausch said. “We continue to need strong, clear and coordinated statewide messaging to inform our residents.”
Olson said by February a statewide registration system will be available for the public to use to schedule appointments to get a shot.
John Sauer, president and CEO of LeadingAge Wisconsin, said it took just 30 days to get to every nursing home after Wisconsin first received vaccine doses.
“Really about a month later from when we first started putting shots in the arms of nursing home residents — 30 days later — we will have visited every nursing home for that initial visit,” Sauer said. “So I think we have to be pleased with that effort.”
Rep. Daniel Riemer, a Democrat from Milwaukee, urged his Republican colleagues on the committee to give the Evers administration some breathing room to carry out the state’s plan to get vaccines to everyone in the state.
“We have to consider as the omelet gets made, eggs are going to get broken,” Riemer said. “Give the administration some wiggle room.”
Sanfelippo objected to the analogy, saying “the eggs you’re talking about getting broken are actually our citizens. So we have to be careful not to break them.”
Daphne Chen and Mary Spicuzza of the Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.