The state health department announced Tuesday that educators, public-facing essential workers and people in congregate living settings will be next in line for vaccine under Phase 1B, but warned that doses may not be available until around March 1.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services said in a statement Tuesday that March 1 is a tentative date based on vaccine supply from the federal government. If vaccine supply increases, these groups may be eligible earlier.
“I know everyone is eager to get protected from COVID-19. With the current allocation from the federal government, it will take considerable time until we have enough vaccine for everyone,” DHS Interim Secretary Karen Timberlake said in a statement.
Track COVID-19 in Wisconsin: See the latest data on cases and the vaccine rollout
The health department finalized these groups after input from its State Medical Disaster Advisory Committee, a group of doctors, nurses and other public health experts charged with prioritizing people for the vaccine based on scientific, ethical and feasibility considerations as well as federal guidelines.
The groups, in priority order, include:
- Education and child care workers
- People in Medicaid long-term care programs such as IRIS and Family Care
- Public-facing essential workers, such as 911 operators, public transit workers, utility workers and food supply chain workers, including agricultural workers and retail food workers
- Non-frontline health care personnel
- People in congregate living, such as those in mental health institutions or people who are incarcerated
- Mink husbandry workers
Frontline health care workers, nursing home and assisted living residents, police and fire personnel and people ages 65 and older are already eligible for the coronavirus vaccine.
The decision over who to include in Phase 1B has been fraught with tough debates over how to prioritize millions of vulnerable Wisconsinites. This next phase leaves out people with high-risk medical conditions, who will likely be in Phase 1C.
Health officials asked that people who are able to work from home, perform most tasks outdoors or who do not have much exposure to the public to step back — even if eligible now — until there is more vaccine supply.
Vaccinators should use up available vaccine instead of throwing it out, health officials said, but “only those who are at significant risk due to public-facing positions with considerations of frequency, intensity, and duration of contact” should step forward.
Demand outpacing supply
Meanwhile, Republicans in the Legislature have criticized health officials for including prisoners in Phase 1B and hammered Gov. Tony Evers for the speed of Wisconsin’s rollout, which is lagging other Midwest states.
Evers and state health officials have repeatedly responded that they need more supply and better communication from the federal government to speed up vaccinations.
At a press briefing Tuesday, DHS deputy secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said demand outstrips supply “everywhere in the state.”
“We have the vaccinator capacity out there to get these vaccines rolling, we just need more,” she said.
Vaccine providers asked the state for “over double what we were able to give them,” she said.
The federal government allocated 66,500 doses of vaccine to Wisconsin this week. The state expects to receive about 70,000 doses each week for the next month.
About 362,000 total doses have been administered in Wisconsin as of Tuesday, state data shows. That’s about 60% of available doses.
Nearly 200,000 doses were set aside for Wisconsin nursing home and assisted living facilities, but just over 40,000 have been administered so far. State health officials are working to take back some doses from CVS and Walgreens to distribute them faster through other means.
Some assisted-living residents who share a campus or a building with nursing home residents may have gotten the vaccine already when one of the pharmacy chains arrived earlier this month to give shots at the nursing home.
The doses reclaimed from CVS and Walgreens will go to independent pharmacies and local health departments, which can vaccinate some of the assisted living facilities more effectively, state health officials said.
Timeline could set back school reopenings
The tentative March 1 start date may set some school districts back in their plans to reopen in person. The Green Bay School Board, for example, voted last week to bring students back to the classroom three weeks after the first day vaccinations are available to staff.
Willems Van Dijk said health officials are working closely with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to ensure that districts have a plan for vaccinating their staff when the time comes. It is up to each district to decide whether to contract with a health system or a local health department to perform vaccinations, or register some of their own staff to perform vaccinations themselves, she said.
In Milwaukee, Amy Mizialko, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, said the union is pushing to keep schools virtual at least until all staff have had access to the vaccine, which she expects to take several months.
“Any progress toward vaccination eligibility is positive but we also need to be realistic,” Mizialko said. “Eligibility does not necessarily equal availability of vaccine.”
Angela Harris, chair of Black Educators Caucus MKE, said she hopes Milwaukee Public Schools remain closed for this school year. By the time all school staff are vaccinated, Harris said the school year will likely be nearly over, or already over.
“Ultimately the most responsible thing to do would be to plan for school reopening in September and putting our full force behind doing our best virtually,” said Harris, who teaches first grade at Dr. King Jr. Elementary School.
Next phase will start before current phase is completed
State health officials said they will begin opening up vaccine eligibility to the people in Phase 1B when the current phase is about halfway done. The phase, which swelled over time as more groups of people got added, encompasses roughly 1.6 million people, or a third of Wisconsin’s adult population.
“We will not be done with people who are 65-plus on March 1, but we’ll be far enough along that we feel it would be reasonable — assuming a steady vaccine supply — to begin to add others into the group,” Willems Van Dijk said.
Some of the groups overlap — many of the frail elders and adults with disabilities in the IRIS and Family Care programs, for example, are also over 65 and are therefore already eligible for the vaccine, she said.
Having a roadmap forward “is huge,” said Brandon Scholz, president of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, which advocated for retail grocery workers to be included in Phase 1B.
“Now that we have some certainty in terms of where the industry is going to fall as far as the vaccination schedule, that’s fine,” Scholz said. “It’s a plan. And it’s a plan that everybody can work with.”
Mitchell Hagopian, a managing attorney at Disability Rights Wisconsin who also sits on the state health department’s vaccine subcommittee, said the IRIS and Family Care programs will spend their time until March 1 planning a smooth rollout.
At the beginning of the vaccine effort, he said, many of the people who work as caretakers for the program had trouble getting matched with vaccinators because they were not affiliated with the large hospitals systems that were focused on vaccinating their own employees.
“It gives us a little bit of time to get ahead of this and have a good system in place to make sure that people in those programs, once March 1 comes, there’ll be a way to get it to them,” Hagopian said.
Mink farm workers, of which there are only a few hundred in the state, were included because of particularly high transmission of COVID-19 between mink and humans.
In the announcement, Evers urged Wisconsinites to keep up social distancing and hygiene measures.
While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are highly effective at reducing the chance of severe symptoms and death, scientists are still researching if they prevent transmission of the virus. That means that people who are immunized could potentially still become infected and pass it to someone else, as with the flu shot.
Wisconsin on Tuesday reported 1,301 new cases of the coronavirus, and 54 additional deaths.