MADISON – The state advisory panel recommending when Wisconsin residents should get the COVID-19 vaccine is pausing work while the Evers administration gathers more information on how President Joe Biden’s vaccine strategy will affect the state.
The hiatus, which could last weeks, also comes while the distribution of vaccine doses is ramping up; it will likely take months to provide shots to everyone already eligible.
Wisconsin is in the middle of distributing vaccine doses to residents in the first and second phase of the state’s rollout, which includes frontline workers, teachers and people over the age of 65 — more than 1 million people.
The committee does not coordinate the physical distribution of the vaccine, and state officials have the final say on guidance given to local vaccinators. The panel of public health experts collects public input on who should be prioritized in the rollout, and gives recommendations to the Department of Health Services on how to manage each phase of the distribution, among other duties.
“Our goal is to make sure that as much as possible we are aligning with (the Biden administration’s strategy) and not diverting before we understand completely what that strategy looks like,” Lisa Olson, assistant deputy Health Services Secretary, said Friday at a meeting of the department’s State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee vaccine distribution subcommittee.
“So in an effort to not make you all provide unnecessary work, and to give a couple weeks until we understand what that really looks like, we’re asking the committee to take a pause so that we can provide clearer direction on what the next steps and needs for our vaccine distribution strategy look like,” she said.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Tony Evers did not answer whether state health officials or Evers have talked to Biden administration officials about the new national strategy and what changes could be made.
The vaccine distribution panel has been meeting since October. Last week it finalized the groups eligible to be vaccinated in the second phase, which is not expected to fully ramp up until March when more doses of the vaccine will be made available by the federal government.
Committee co-chairman Jonathan Temte of the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health said the committee will break because it will take months to distribute vaccine shots to everyone eligible in phases underway.
Assembly Health Committee chairman Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, said hitting pause right now is “ridiculous.”
“There’s plenty of other work that needs to be done,” he said Monday. “I have no idea why they’re taking a break. It just shows a lack of urgency.”
As of Monday, about 101,000 people in the state had received both doses of the two-shot COVID-19 vaccine series. Twenty percent of residents 65 and older had received at least one dose by Monday, according to DHS.
Overall, about 552,000 doses have been administered in Wisconsin since December.
Track COVID and the vaccine in Wisconsin:See the latest data on cases and how many doses have been administered
Temte said Friday he hopes the committee, or DHS, will provide guidance on who should be prioritized before the third phase of the rollout arrives.
Currently, residents over the age of 65 and people in many public-facing and high-risk jobs are eligible to get vaccine shots. But people with health conditions under 65 are not yet eligible to schedule appointments.
“Lots of individuals in the state of Wisconsin right now are feeling left out because of high-risk medical conditions and the immunocompromised and hopefully we can come up with, or the state can come up with, some guidance before they move into Phase 1C,” he said.
Jim Conway, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Global Health Institute who is a member of the panel, said during the meeting he was concerned about the effect of the break on the subcommittee members’ ability to provide information to the health care community and others about the status of the rollout.
“Now that we’re on this committee (many of us) are sort of viewed as sources of information for a lot of the people around the state and a lot of organizations and it’s been incredibly beneficial to be part of these conversations to be able to help shed some light on these things,” Conway said. “I’m a little concerned if we’re going to take a long pause that we won’t continue to be able to be those resources for others, so I do wonder where things are, what we know about how the distribution is going and if there is anything that we can offer.”
Temte agreed, saying, “At the end of the day we serve at the pleasure of the Secretary or Acting Secretary so if our efforts, skills, knowledge and opinions are of value, I think we stand ready to come back.”
DHS spokeswoman Jennifer Miller said as state health officials learn more from the Biden administration on vaccine supply and recommended priorities, DHS will provide further direction to the advisory committee.
“Given the amount of vaccine coming into the state, we know we will be vaccinating the populations recommended by (committee) for the foreseeable future,” she said.
Daphne Chen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.
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