Current estimates project the public in Wisconsin will begin receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in June, which would mark a major step toward the goal of achieving herd immunity in the second half of 2021.
The long-anticipated vaccine, which Wisconsin health care providers first began administering in mid-December, has brought an infusion of hope for many, holding out promise that we could see office lights turned back on, curtains open for live performances and even the return of maskless social interactions before the year’s end.
Yet, since its arrival, the vaccine rollout in the state and across the country has been slower than expected.
One month into the vaccination program, the state has not yet completed phase 1A of its plan, which includes immunizing frontline health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities, a group that totals roughly 550,000 people.
At press time, 239,102 vaccinations had been administered in the state.
Wisconsin Department of Health Services officials’ projections that the state will be able to open the vaccine gates to the general public in early summer come with several caveats.
“Looking into the crystal ball and knowing exactly when the general public will be able to get vaccine is a really challenging job here,” DHS deputy secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk recently said on a call with reporters. “I keep saying late spring, early summer. … It’s something we’ll know better week by week as we move along.”
Supply is a big factor, which depends on both an increase in allocation from the federal government along with increased production of the vaccines by Pfizer, Moderna and other not-yet-approved vaccine manufacturers, such as Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca. Johnson & Johnson’s potential one-shot vaccine is promising, but, even if it is authorized for emergency use, reported manufacturing delays could hinder its wider distribution for the next few months.
While challenges with the vaccine rollout have been widely reported nationally, Wisconsin in the early weeks of distribution has trailed its Midwestern peers, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
At press time, Wisconsin has administered 2,916 first COVID-19 vaccine doses per 100,000 residents, the lowest in the Midwest, according to CDC data.
Various factors have contributed to Wisconsin’s slow start. For one, the state initially was required to hold back half of its vaccine designated for long-term care settings as part of a federal pharmacy partnership, which meant it stockpiled doses before it initiated the vaccination program in skilled nursing and assisted living settings. DHS officials noted that Wisconsin has one of the highest per-capita rates of people in long-term care, which added to the delay in rolling out the vaccine.
Officials have also noted that Wisconsin has a comparatively large health care workforce, making its phase 1A last longer than other states.
But others claim the state’s early rollout has been disorganized, with some groups – including unaffiliated health care workers – not knowing how or when to get their shot.
Lawmakers have criticized vaccine deployment delays, with Republican leaders saying the Evers Administration’s effort has been bogged down by bureaucracy and Democratic leaders faulting the Trump administration’s leadership.
Republican Congressman Bryan Steil, of Janesville, recently said Evers shows a “stunning lack of urgency” considering how Wisconsin stacks up against other states.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, meanwhile, joined 42 Democratic senators in mid-January in calling out the lack of a comprehensive national vaccine plan, saying the Trump administration’s response was a “pathetic failure.”
In the first month of vaccine distribution, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department held back the second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine to ensure states had enough supply to administer both shots, but in mid-January reversed course on that policy.
President Joe Biden has vowed to significantly ramp up deployment of the vaccine, with the goal of administering 1 million doses a day for his first 100 days in office. Wisconsin would need 125,000 doses weekly, or 18,000 doses daily, to meet that target. That’s about 55,000 more doses weekly than it is currently receiving, as of press time.
Ultimately, Willems Van Dijk said she would like to see Wisconsin administering about 30,000 to 50,000 doses daily to reach herd immunity faster.
DHS estimates it will take through February to vaccinate everyone in the state’s highest-priority tier who wants the vaccine. The state is initiating phase 1B before then, however, beginning with firefighters and police officers who were able to receive the vaccine starting Jan. 18.
Others in the 1B phase will likely include teachers, corrections workers and those 70 years and older. At press times, the phases after 1A had not yet been finalized by the state committee responsible for identifying who gets the vaccine when.
While vaccinations are currently offered at a limited number of sites, once the state progresses to subsequent phases, vaccinations will be offered at more places, including commercial pharmacies and mobile vaccination clinics. Health care providers will begin vaccinating their own patients as part of their routine care.
“One of our mantras in immunization work is never have a missed opportunity for a vaccine, so as we move forward in these broader groups we would like to see hospitals and health care systems starting to incorporate vaccination for COVID-19 as part of any visit you have at your clinic,” Willems Van Dijk said.
While deploying the vaccine marks a major step in the effort to bring the pandemic under control, health officials caution that life won’t return to normal for a while. DHS officials project it will be the third quarter of 2021 before the state is able to relax masking and physical distancing measures.
It remains to be seen how many people will decline the vaccine when they are offered it.
At this point, employers, including health care organizations, are largely encouraging, rather than requiring, their employees to get the vaccine as it becomes available. None of the large Milwaukee-area health systems, including Ascension Wisconsin, Advocate Aurora Health and Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, have mandated the vaccine for employees.
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey found 27% of the overall population is hesitant to get vaccines and 29% of health care workers polled say they are probably not going to get vaccinated. The main worries among those polled were related to side effects, a lack of trust in the government and concerns about it being too new, according to the survey.
Rick Abrams, president and chief executive officer of Wisconsin Health Care Association and Wisconsin Center for Assisted Living, said willingness to get vaccinated among nursing facility residents is relatively high (he estimated over 70%), but it’s less consistent among staff members at any given facility.
“I have great confidence that as those that have been hesitant for whatever reason see that their colleagues have been vaccinated, they haven’t gotten sick and they certainly haven’t caught COVID because of the vaccine, which is an impossibility … I believe that those percentages if they’re low in a particular facility will begin to rise as there is more receptivity to those who don’t want to be first,” Abrams said.