By LeAnn R. Ralph
MADISON — Even though the SARS-Co-V2 vaccine rollout has already started, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services is recommending that large gatherings still be postponed this summer to allow as many people as possible to be vaccinated first.
Vaccinators in the state are currently asking for twice as much vaccine as is available through the federal government, so it is still a question as to how many people will be vaccinated by summer, said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, during a media briefing on the COVID-19 vaccine January 26.
Holding big events with large numbers of people early in the summer “will be challenging,” she said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases and chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, is recommending waiting until late summer or fall for large gatherings, Van Dijk said.
The vaccine, the systems in place for getting people vaccinated, the priority lists for vaccinations — “is all brand new,” she said.
Event planners should consider how much investment they will have in planning an event and should consider deferring those late spring or early summer events until later in the year, Van Dijk said.
As of January 26, a total of 362,505 doses of vaccine had been administered, and of those doses, 69,077 were second doses, she said.
The first phase of vaccinations were given to nursing home residents, and the next group will be people 65 years or older, of which there are 700,000 in the state. Beginning March 1, educators, teachers and childcare workers will be eligible, Van Dijk said.
The 65-and-older group will not be finished by March 1, but the plan is to have 50 percent of the previous group vaccinated when the next group becomes eligible, which will keep the vaccination rate moving steadily, she said.
A reporter for Wisconsin Health News asked about the bill recommended by the state Assembly’s Health Committee to require vaccine to be available to the general public by mid-March and state Representative Joe Sanfelippo’s comments that the state has had “no sense of urgency” about getting the vaccine out.
A total of 362,000 doses of vaccine administered in a month “is not a bungled system,” Van Dijk said.
If Representative Sanfelippo believes there is no sense of urgency, he should meet the people who are working night and day to get the vaccine out, she said.
Wisconsin has been receiving about 70,000 doses of vaccine each week from the federal government. Governor Tony Evers repeatedly asked the Trump administration for more doses of vaccine to be shipped to Wisconsin to no avail.
Van Dijk said her concern would be if the vaccine was opened up to the general public too soon, even if there are no extra doses available, there would be a “rush” on the health care system that would overwhelm the system.
“Our system is moving forward. We are accelerating (the number of vaccine doses) every week,” she said.
A reporter for the Associated Press asked if Wisconsin was seeing any changes in vaccine allocation from the Biden administration.
Wisconsin has not received any updated numbers yet, and the last word was the day before Biden’s inauguration on January 20 that the federal government was working on solidifying inventories and checking numbers, Van Dijk said.
In order to have 80 percent of the population in Wisconsin vaccinated by the end of June, the state would have to receive three times the number of doses that the state has been receiving, she said.
A vaccination rate of 80 percent would mean that enough people would be unable to spread the virus to achieve “herd immunity.”
The vaccinator capacity is there because the state has been receiving requests for twice the amount of vaccine than has been administered, Van Dijk said.
“We need more vaccine,” she said.
Everywhere in the state, the demand for vaccine is higher than the supply that is available, Van Dijk said.
A reporter from Wis. Politics asked how the state is justifying vaccinating prisoners before vaccinating people who are age 65 or older.
In all congregate living facilities — prisons, group homes, assisted living, nursing homes — people are at the greatest risk for COVID-19, Van Dijk said.
In prisons, for example, COVID-19 is not only confined to the prisoners. The people who work there go out into the public, and they can infect their family members and others, she said.
It is reasonable and rational to vaccinate all people living in congregate facilities first, Van Dijk said.
A reporter for Fox 6 out of Milwaukee asked when people with chronic conditions would be added to vaccination list.
Many of the people 65 and older also have chronic health conditions, Van Dijk said.
Younger people with pre-existing conditions will be given consideration in the next group, she said.
Several reporters asked about the variants of the SARS-Co-V2 virus that have been discovered, such as the variants in Great Britain, South Africa and Brazil.
Viruses change constantly, said Stephanie Schauer, Ph.D., Division of Public Health Immunization Program Manager.
The state lab has been doing genome sequencing on every so many positive tests to track the variants, she said.
The variants make it incredibly important for people to keep wearing masks, to physically distance, to wash their hands and to stay home whenever possible to contain the virus, Van Dijk said.
We need to bring down the rate of disease and increase the rate of vaccination, she said.
Various news reports have indicated the COVID-19 variants are more contagious and more easily spread than the original virus.
A reporter for WQOW out of Eau Claire asked what the state is doing to help smaller rural communities with vaccinations.
Even the smaller health systems in the state are performing at a high level in terms of getting the vaccine out, Van Dijk said.
To supplement all communities, the state is implementing mobile vaccination teams that include the National Guard, volunteers and University of Wisconsin students in the health sciences, she said.
Health departments across the state can request help from the mobile vaccination teams where needed, Van Dijk said.
A reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal asked about the role of independent pharmacies in the vaccine rollout.
Independent pharmacies are a key player, and there are a number of them signed up as vaccine providers and have started giving vaccinations, Schauer said.
Another reporter asked about verification for occupations when people are being vaccinated.
One way is to vaccinate people on site at their place of employment. Vaccinators are encouraged to ask for verification as well, such as work badge or a pay stub or to ask people to sign a form, Van Dijk said.
The goal is to have as few barriers in place as possible for vaccinations but to also verify that people being vaccinated belong to the priority group, she said.
A reporter for Spectrum News asked about the best way for school districts to get vaccinations for employees when the time comes.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is working with the Department of Public Instruction to get information to the school districts, Van Dijk said.
School districts — or any employer — can apply to be an eligible vaccinator to have vaccine clinics on site, she said.