COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, but public access months away

High-risk recipients will come first; timeline depends on how fast production ramps up

A Covid-19 vaccine vial and a syringe (Getty Images)
A Covid-19 vaccine vial and a syringe (Getty Images)

While the first COVID-19 vaccines could be administered before New Year’s Day, it will be well into 2021 before immunization is widespread enough to relax other public health precautions in Wisconsin.

The exact timeline isn’t yet certain as public health officials await formal federal approval of the first two vaccines. But Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), said Monday she expects the first shots to be given by the end of this month.

Speaking during an update for reporters on the state’s vaccination plan, Van Dijk said the first round of vaccine doses will go to healthcare workers, starting with those working in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

Other high-risk groups and essential workers will be next in line, while members of the general public who don’t have health problems that make them a higher priority will come later — possibly sometime next summer, Van Dijk said.

For that reason, behavioral strategies to prevent the spread of the virus will need to continue for many more months.

“In the meantime, we all need to continue preventive measures like staying home, wearing a mask, physical distancing, and washing your hands frequently,” Van Dijk said. “And so we all need to be patient. We appreciate your patience because it means we’ll be able to prioritize the populations who need the COVID-19 vaccine the most right away to receive it first, including frontline healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities like nursing homes.”

Two vaccines are in the late stages of review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice (ACIP). The first is manufactured by Pfizer and the second by Moderna.

The vaccine itself will be free, paid for by the federal government, said Van Dijk, and the costs of administering it are expected to be covered by health insurance as preventive care, and by the state for people who don’t have insurance.

The Pfizer vaccine requires supercold storage at 80 degrees below zero. For that reason, it will be sent first to centralized locations around the state, which will then distribute doses where they will be used. The Moderna vaccine will be sent directly to the organizations or outlets that will administer it.

The state is expecting its initial shipment of the Pfizer vaccine to consist of 49,725 doses, but it’s not clear how large subsequent shipments will be.

In a mid-November Gallup poll, 58% of those surveyed said they would be willing to get a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available, reversing what had been declining public support for the immunization.

“It’s important to note that people have questions about vaccines in general,” said Stephanie Schauer, manager of the immunization program at the DHS Division of Public Health. “And it’s important to ask those questions.”

DHS has been emphasizing the FDA and ACIP review as a thorough process, and Schauer said those should assure the public that the vaccine is safe and effective.

“Going forward, these vaccines will continue to be studied,” Schauer added. “And I hope that that information will reassure the public about them.”

The state has established an informational website for the public on the vaccine.

Van Dijk said she’s seen evidence of strong public interest in the vaccine. DHS has already received many inquiries from organizations “contacting us asking to be next in line for the vaccine,” she said. “I think it’s like any new technology or new approach to healthcare. There’ll be the early adopters. And then there will be those who will see how it goes with those early adopters and others who will come along.”

Van Dijk added: “We’re confident that a good share of Wisconsinites will find this an effective way to bring us to the other side of COVID-19.”

Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.