Assembly Republicans want wider COVID-19 vaccine distribution — regardless of availability

Health officials say making more people eligible too quickly would overwhelm the state’s vaccine supply

COVID 19 vaccine gloved hand holding vial
Photo by Artem Podrez from Pexels

Ratcheting up attacks on the Evers administration’s handling of the COVID-19 vaccine, Assembly Republicans have proposed two bills that would make an end run around the state’s vaccine distribution plan.

Neither bill would address what state officials have said is the fundamental bottleneck that has been slowing down the distribution of vaccine — the limited supply that has been trickling out to the state from the federal government. Instead, one bill would require the state to expand the top priority group for vaccine recipients to include everyone 60 and older and to begin vaccinating members of the general public by March 15 — regardless of whether the supply of vaccine in the state can meet the demand by that date.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Health Services (DHS) said Tuesday it was planning to expand the pool of people immediately eligible for the vaccine starting Monday, Jan. 25.

The Assembly Health Committee has scheduled public hearings on both bills for Wednesday at 1 p.m.

The bills follow two weeks of letters and statements — along with an Assembly Health Committee public hearing on Thursday, Jan. 14 — in which Republican lawmakers have complained about the vaccine distribution program and demanded that state officials speed up the timeline.

Vaccination for COVID-19 in Wisconsin began about a month ago, starting with health care workers as well as staff and residents of nursing homes. Because the number of vaccine doses has continued to be limited in the state, DHS has been rolling out the vaccine in order of priority for the recipients.

Health care workers were in the first priority group because of their risk of exposure to the coronavirus as well as the essential nature of their work amid the pandemic. Nursing home residents were included in the first group because of their vulnerability as elderly people, compounded by the greater risks they have living in groups. Nursing homes have been the site of outbreaks of the illness throughout the state.

Members of the second priority group, which includes firefighters and police officers, began receiving the vaccine this week, DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk told reporters Tuesday during a media update on the vaccine program.

While the state is expanding eligibility for the vaccine to include some 700,000 Wisconsin residents 65 and older starting next week, at the current rate at which the vaccine is being shipped to Wisconsin, it will take about two months before everyone in that age group can receive the vaccine.

“Wisconsin only receives 70,000 doses of vaccine a week,” Van Dijk said. “We can’t vaccinate everyone at once, and we can’t vaccinate everyone without more vaccine.”

In order for 80% of Wisconsin residents to be vaccinated by the end of June, “We need three times the amount of vaccine [each week] as we have now,” she added.

The slow distribution of vaccine doses to the state is the reason that the state has needed to set priorities in the first place. 

Recommendations on which groups should get priority for the vaccine come from a subcommittee of the State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee, which assists DHS. The panel is currently finalizing a list of occupational categories that should be eligible next for the vaccine and is reviewing 5,000 public comments that have come in, Van Dijk said Tuesday. For example, grocery workers are not currently on that list — prompting concern from representatives of workers as well as employers in the industry — but Van Dijk said Tuesday that the list isn’t yet final and won’t be until later this week.

At the Assembly Health Committee hearing last week, state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) suggested that the advisory committee process was imposing “bureaucracy” on the vaccine administration process, and that the state could simply have used broad guidelines on priorities furnished by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But Van Dijk, in another DHS media briefing on Friday, Jan. 15, said the CDC guidelines were much broader than those that the DHS was using. The CDC’s second-priority group alone encompassed as many as 2 million people in the state. Meanwhile, Wisconsin is currently receiving fewer than 500,000 doses of vaccine a month, she said, and the state “needed an opportunity to review those guidelines and narrow them” while also getting public input.

“Let me be very clear, prioritization is not slowing down vaccination in any way, shape, or form,” Van Dijk said Friday.

Without setting priorities for who gets the vaccine, and calibrating those to the amount of vaccine the state is getting from the federal government, “we would just be crushed by people who want the vaccine and not having enough vaccine,” she said. “And that’s why we’re using this very deliberate approach to match certain groups to the volume of vaccine — and we will get there.”

In addition to the Assembly bills introduced Tuesday, Republicans in the state Senate introduced bills to forbid employers or government agencies from requiring anyone to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

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.