DHS announces vaccine plans for Wisconsin

Health care workers getting first doses, followed by essential workers and high-risk people
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

State health officials are expecting that, if things go on schedule with potential vaccines getting approved by the federal government, the coronavirus pandemic should be pretty much a memory later in 2021.

A briefing held Tuesday for the media by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services revealed doses of COVID-19 vaccinations from Pfizer and Moderna could arrive in the state as soon as next month, as long as the vaccines receive approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Both companies are expected to make emergency applications for quick approval later this month.

Julie Willems Van Dijk, DHS deputy secretary, is hopeful that it will happen sooner, rather than later, as the spread of coronavirus continues unchecked in Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin is in a crisis,” Van Dijk said. “Cases are high and rising, hospitalizations are high and rising, and COVID-19 deaths are high and rising. We all need to do everything we can to prevent further infections.”

Van Dijk previously worked for the Marathon County Health Department and noted that the county put together a pandemic plan in 2006, but COVID-19 has proven to be more complicated than anyone could have thought.

“We spent over a year collaborating with neighboring counties and tribal health organizations to develop a pandemic preparedness plan,” Van Dijk said. “Part of that plan included practicing mass vaccinations. Since that time, local and tribal health departments and their community partners have continued mass vaccination planning and exercising to be prepared for a moment just like this.”

The initial doses the state receives will be limited to health care providers and long-term care providers, according to Stephanie Schauer, one of the leaders in the state’s COVID-19 vaccine response efforts. Schauer anticipates there will be more health providers than available doses, which is expected to be 340,000, about 1.7% of the 20 million expected nationwide in the first wave.

“As supply increases, we’ll widen the criteria for vaccination to other essential workers and people at high risk for getting sick from COVID-19,” Schauer said. “It will take several months before vaccine supply will meet the public’s demand.”

Schauer said DHS plans to provide regular updates on when certain segments of the population can receive the vaccination, which will require two doses to receive potential immunity. The second dose will need to be administered 21-28 days after the first.

“While we are looking forward to having a safe and effective vaccine in the coming months, we still need to continue taking steps to protect ourselves, our families and our communities — both now and when the vaccine becomes available,” Schauer said. “Stay home, wash your hands, wear a mask and physically distance if you have to go out.”

She also recommended residents get a flu vaccination. While it doesn’t protect from COVID-19, she said, having the flu will make people more susceptible to getting coronavirus, as well.

All of this will depend on whether or not the vaccines get FDA approval, according to Van Dijk.

“To qualify, the COVID-19 vaccine will need to meet safety and efficacy standards, and it will need to be closely monitored throughout its dissemination,” Van Dijk said.

Van Dijk and Schauer did not have specifics on how the vaccine would be distributed once there is enough for the general public, but community-based clinics, both drive-in and walk-in, could be part of the equation.

Rural areas will be able to get doses just as easily as urban areas, according to Van Dijk.

“We’re really confident that, with the array of vaccines that we will have, we will have an opportunity to get vaccines across the state,” she said. “Our testing program, which we are going to model much of our vaccine program after, has touched all corners of this state, and we are fully committed that, no matter where you live in Wisconsin, you will have access to this vaccine.”

Schauer noted there is no magic number as far as immunity levels needing to be reached to end the pandemic, but she noted that the goal during flu season is usually 80% of the population.

“We know that we want a fair number of people immunized, and more is better than less,” Schauer said. “I think it’s a lofty goal, nevertheless. If you look at last year’s flu vaccinations, we were at 42%, so we definitely need to do better.”

If things go according to plan, there’s no reason to expect that Wisconsin won’t be healthy again later next year, but Van Dijk said she doesn’t expect society will ever return to “normal.” In fact, she thinks many of the protective measures preached by health officials during the pandemic should still be practiced once it comes to an end.

“I think this pandemic, however, will change us forever in thinking about infection control, in thinking about many of the protective elements that we’ve taken,” Van Dijk said. “I hope we’re all much better about washing our hands and thinking about how close we have to be to people and even perhaps wearing facial coverings when we’re out in public, particularly during cold and flu season.”