Wisconsin health leader implores employers to help vaccine rollout effort

Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee held a COVID vaccine clinic for frontline workers on Dec. 15. (Photo: Advocate Aurora Health)

Last updated on March 9th, 2021 at 02:10 pm

As eligibility for the COVID-19 widens to more groups in the coming weeks, the state’s top health official said employers will play an important role in helping their employees access the vaccine when the time comes.

Interim Wisconsin Department of Health Services secretary Karen Timberlake said the role of employers varies, but could include allowing employees to take off work to get vaccinated, hosting on-site vaccine clinics or simply sharing information about vaccine safety with employees.

In a recent survey of small employers in the state, nearly a third (32%) said they don’t think they have a role to play in helping their employees get the COVID-19 vaccine, which Timberlake said was an “alarming” number.

About a quarter said they had a role to play in providing vaccine-related education to their employees, while 11% indicated they had a role in making the vaccine available on site for their employees. The survey was conducted by DHS in partnership with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

Timberlake addressed business leaders Monday during a Greater Milwaukee Committee panel discussion of the state’s vaccine rollout effort.

“We think you have a role to play,” Timberlake told GMC members. “And we do think that the most important thing you can be doing is helping your employees with access to good, fact-based, science-based information about vaccine efficacy and safety, vaccine availability, what the plan is for your workplace when your employees become eligible.”

“We know that employers are a very trusted messenger for their employees around these kinds of matters, so our job as a health department is to equip you with the facts you need,” she added.

Employers should consider how transportation challenges could prevent employees from accessing the vaccine and potentially partner with a local health department or health systems to ease those issues. With vaccine appointments generally being held during traditional work hours, Timberlake said employers should also consider allowing employees to get their shot on paid time.

Studies related to flu vaccination indicates that modest incentives have also been effective in encouraging people to get their shot, Timberlake said.

Dr. John Raymond, president and CEO of the Medical College of Wisconsin, said Milwaukee County has lagged behind other counties in its vaccine deployment, with 15.4% of the population having received at least one vaccination dose and 7.7% having completed the full vaccination course, as of Sunday. That’s compared to 18.4% of the state’s population having received at least one dose, and 10.3% having completed both. The state ranks 13th of the 55 U.S. states and territories in completed vaccination courses.

Current eligible groups include health care workers, long-term care residents, police and fire personnel and corrections staff, adults 65 and older, educators and child care staff, those enrolled in Medicaid long-term care programs, some public-facing essential workers, and congregate living facility staff and residents.

With increased supply coming to the state, Timberlake said her department expects to make an announcement within the next week about the next eligible group, who will be able to access the vaccine beginning in April.

Greg Marcus, chair of the Greater Milwaukee Committee board, announced Tuesday the committee has launched a business leadership vaccine advisory to increase communication between the health care and business sectors about what employers’ needs are related to the vaccine. The advisory is chaired by Marcus; Raymond; Cristy Garcia Thomas, chief external affairs officer for Advocate Aurora Health; and Kristina Bell, manager of global diversity and inclusion for Johnson Controls.

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