MADISON – Everyone in Wisconsin would be eligible to schedule appointments for COVID-19 vaccine shots by mid-March and state health officials would be barred from prioritizing prisoners in the vaccine rollout under legislation introduced this week by Republican lawmakers.
The Evers administration this week announced residents 65 and older could start scheduling appointments for their first vaccine shot on Monday. At the same time, the Republican leader of the Assembly’s health committee is proposing to open up that option to everyone in Wisconsin by mid-March.
“We have areas of the state where they are going through their priority list much quicker than other areas,” state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, said about the bill. “We’re interested in making sure we get as many vaccines in people as fast as possible.”
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But if the general public were able to sign up for vaccine shots in mid-March, it would require a significant increase in doses from the federal government to accomplish the effort in a timely fashion.
Currently, the state receives about 70,000 doses per week, which won’t change for at least a month, according to Health Services Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk. There are 4.7 million people in Wisconsin 16 and older who would require two doses, though not everyone plans to get the vaccine.
Republican lawmakers are introducing a slate of bills to manage the vaccine distribution effort, including one bill that bans employers from requiring them, after criticizing the Evers administration for the speed of its rollout that lags the national average.
In Wisconsin, about 285,000 vaccine doses have been administered as of Thursday. About 22,000 were given over the last 24 hours — the most in a single day so far. About 57,000 of the doses were second doses, meaning those people have been fully vaccinated.
Evers told reporters on Thursday he believes his administration is doing the best it can with the number of doses the state has.
“We’re doing the best we can. Legislators can do what they want to do and if they want to make a political issue of this they can make a political issue of this,” Gov. Tony Evers told reporters on Thursday.
He said Republican lawmakers haven’t attended briefings on the state’s COVID-19 response in weeks.
The legislation aimed at speeding up the rollout comes as the Evers administration also is considering approving a plan that would make vaccine shots available to inmates in state prisons as early as this month in its plan to expand the rollout to more Wisconsin residents.
Under a bill introduced Friday by 11 GOP lawmakers, the state Department of Health Services could not provide vaccine shots to inmates before they would be eligible otherwise, such as according to their age group. A Senate committee held a public hearing on the proposal Thursday.
Department of Corrections spokesman John Beard said the state “has a constitutional obligation to provide appropriate treatment for individuals in our care and to appropriately respond to substantial risks of serious harm to those individuals.”
He said the department’s rules for delivering health services are based on the National Commission on Correctional Health Care’s standards, which include vaccinations as a component of infection control within correctional facilities.
The DOC has been sued before by inmates who alleged state officials didn’t meet these standards, Beard said.
But Republicans have criticized the plan, saying an inmate who is young and otherwise healthy should not receive a vaccine shot before a Wisconsin resident of an age group that has a higher chance of dying if they are infected by COVID-19.
State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, said Thursday during the public hearing that the bill would prevent the administration from making a “coming mistake.”
“A healthy 30-year-old three-time murderer would be entitled to receive a vaccine before other at-risk individuals,” Wanggaard said. “A 25-year-old who raped a 60-year-old asthmatic cancer survivor would be entitled to receive the vaccine before his victim. This is not only unwise, it’s unconscionable.”
He said because correctional officers are in line to get vaccines now, state prisons will soon be a safer environment.
State prisons have had some of the largest outbreaks in Wisconsin. 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.
State Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, disputed Wanggaard’s testimony, saying new inmates are coming into the facilities regularly and could bring in COVID-19. She said infected prisoners are also causing correctional officers to bring the virus home to their families or spread it outside the facilities.
She said a vaccine also could prevent the state from spending more on health services for infected inmates.
The plan being considered by Evers and state health officials was recommended by a committee overseeing the vaccine rollout in Wisconsin. After proposing to include inmates in the next phase, the committee sought public comment on the ideas.
The majority were opposed to including incarcerated people in Phase 1B. However, the 17-person committee ultimately voted to include prisoners, along with all other Wisconsinites living in shared housing facilities, such as group homes, in the phase.
Daryl Daane, pharmacy director at the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, pointed out that federal immunization guidelines did not make a distinction between people in such congregate living arrangements and prisons.
“Intentionally excluding this group and not meeting the community standards would put us at legal jeopardy,” Daane said. “It’s the incarcerated’s Eighth Amendment right to receive the same level of care that they can get in the community.”
Committee co-chairman Dr. Jonathan Temte of the University of Wisconsin-Madison agreed.
“Our recommendation should be based on the scientific evidence, the ethical pinnings, and the feasibility,” Temte said. “And on all three accounts, one would say, absolutely. If we are saying we’re going to punish these people yet again — because they are being punished for their crimes at this point in time — this constitutes kind of a double punishment and treating them very, very differently and I’m very uncomfortable with that.”
Dr. Rajiv Naik of Gundersen Health System reminded committee members of the ethical principles that the committee had agreed to follow as it made difficult decisions about how to prioritize a huge variety of people, from people with disabilities to those with chronic conditions or those in advanced age.
“The people that are rendering negative comments are rendering a value judgment on the life,” Naik said. “We talked about respect for persons and other ethical principles that would apply to the prisoners. So I just want to make sure that everybody keeps those principles in mind. And those would come down in favor of keeping them in the group.”
Dan Hopfensperger, former director of the Wisconsin Immunization Program, originally recommended that the committee exclude prisoners.
However, he also noted that many of the people opposed to including prisoners were elderly people who wrote in before the state health department announced Tuesday that people 65 and older would be able to start vaccinations early.
“Now, with the 65 and over being recommended for immunization, that might change things a little bit,” Hopfensperger said.
Daphne Chen and Patrick Marley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.
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