Wisconsin prepares to receive, roll out first COVID-19 vaccine allocation

Wisconsin is expected to receive nearly 50,000 doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine in the coming weeks, pending its authorization by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, which is expected as early as this week.

Those in the state’s highest-priority tier – including frontline health care workers and long-term care residents – could receive the first of the two-dose vaccine later this month, Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said Monday.

“I anticipate we’ll be giving doses in December; it’s just what date in December we don’t yet know,” she said.

While the likely approval of both the Pfizer and Moderna prospective vaccines would mark a significant step forward in the effort to bring the pandemic under control, it will take “a number of months” to complete a statewide rollout and achieve a sufficient immunity threshold, Willems Van Dijk cautioned.

She projects it will be the second or third quarter of 2021 before the state is able to relax masking and physical distancing measures.

“Distributing the COVID-19 vaccine is the most significant public health undertaking of our lifetime,” Willems Van Dijk said. “It will require both preparedness and adaptability, and patience.”

The FDA’s independent vaccines advisory committee and a Centers for Disease Control advisory committee are expected to review Pfizer’s vaccine candidate for emergency use on Thursday; Moderna’s candidate is scheduled for review on Dec. 17. Both have claimed they are more than 90% effective, based on early clinical trials.

The first allocation to Wisconsin will be 49,725 of dose 1 of the Pfizer vaccine, upon its approval.

Vaccine supply is expected to increase significantly next year, but the exact timing of their release remains unknown until they are approved.

The state will roll out the Pfizer vaccine using a “hub-and-spoke” model, with batches of the vaccine being sent to each of the state’s seven health care emergency readiness coalition regions, which have the ultra-cold storage capabilities required of the vaccine, Willems Van Dijk said. From there, the vaccine will be distributed to health care clinics, which will administer it.

The Moderna vaccine, which doesn’t require ultra-cold storage, will be distributed directly to vaccinators.

The timeline of how long it will take to vaccinate the state’s roughly 450,000 health care workers will depend on FDA approval and the state’s vaccine supply.

“That’s the piece that’s hardest to get to a really specific target … But I’m anticipating it will at least take a couple of months for us to get the first dose to everyone,” Willems Van Dijk said, adding that all of those individuals would need to receive a second dose three to four weeks after the first dose, depending on the vaccine.

“Even if we got everybody their first dose in the next couple of months, we wouldn’t be done giving them their series for at least three months,” she said.

It’s yet to be determined who’s next in line to receive the vaccine, but the priority will likely be other, non-health care essential workers, people over the age of 65, and those with comorbidities, such as asthma, heart disease and diabetes, Willems Van Dijk said.

After that, distributing the vaccine to those in the wider public will likely take until well into next year, Willems Van Dijk said.

Vaccinating every Wisconsin resident would require roughly 11.6 million doses. By comparison, the state has completed nearly 5 million COVID-19 tests since the spring, to date.

“Just think about that scope; it’s not like you can give that many vaccines in a month or two,” Willems Van Dijk said. “This is going to spread over at least a similar period of time as our testing period has to date, and probably a little longer.”

While studies show rising confidence among the general public in the prospective COVID vaccines, the most recent poll from Pew Research Center indicates 21% of U.S. adults don’t intend to get vaccinated. The study, published Dec. 3, found 60% of Americans say they would definitely or probably get vaccinated, up from 51% who said the same in September.

Stephanie Schauer, Division of Public Health immunization program manager, said health officials will need to provide the general population with “as much information as possible” about the vaccine to win people’s confidence.

“When you look at the process that is happening with the FDA review and the ACIP (the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices), trying to be as clear and transparent and reassure people the processes are in place, that we have a safe and effective vaccine and that both of those pieces really need to be in place for that approval,” Schauer said.

In the meantime, masking, social distancing and frequent handwashing will need to continue until mid- to late-2021, Willems Van Dijk said.

“I know everybody is excited, and we’d love to take our masks off by Valentine’s Day, but that’s just not going to happen,” she said. “It’s going to be later in 2021.”

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