Next up for vaccines: teachers and childcare workers

They could start getting shots next week — but COVID-19 caution remains the watchword

UPS employees move one of two shipping containers containing the first shipments of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine inside a sorting facility December 13, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. The flight originated in Lansing, Michigan.
UPS employees move one of two shipping containers containing the first shipments of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine inside a sorting facility December 13, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. The flight originated in Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Michael Clevenger - Pool/Getty Images)

Wisconsin is on track to start vaccinating teachers and child care providers against the coronavirus next week, according to the state health department — another step in the state’s long journey out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Exactly when that journey will end, however, remains highly unpredictable. “It’s an impossible question to answer,” Gov. Tony Evers said Tuesday. The more vaccine supplies increase — and the more that people continue to be careful by staying home, avoiding crowds, maintaining physical distance and wearing masks — the sooner it will get here, he added.

The state’s vaccine distribution continues to reach more people, even as the demand for vaccine far overwhelms the available supply. As of Tuesday, more than 1.2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been given in the state, including 370,578 second doses, said Deputy Health Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk. The first two COVID-19 vaccines, one from Pfizer and one from Moderna, both require two doses three or four weeks apart for maximum effectiveness.

Julie Willems Van Dijk, DHS deputy secretary

The state’s vaccine allotment from the federal government is rising to 115,000 doses this week and for at least the next two weeks, but that is still not enough to meet the demand, Van Dijk told reporters at a media briefing conducted by the state Department of Health Services (DHS) on Tuesday afternoon. She said more than 500 vaccine providers in Wisconsin last week asked for more than 300,000 doses — two and a half times the weekly supply.

Despite the current shortage, Van Dijk said Wisconsin has been assured by federal officials that supplies of vaccine won’t go down. A third vaccine, from Johnson & Johnson, is to undergo a federal review for its safety and effectiveness  at the end of the week, and would increase the supply to Wisconsin and the rest of the states if approved.

And in a development reported after the media briefing ended, executives from both Pfizer and Moderna told Congress Tuesday that they would be ramping up vaccine supplies considerably in March and April.

The expanded distribution comes as Wisconsin prepares to set up four new community vaccination clinics around the state over the next several weeks to two months. The first such clinic began operating in Rock County last week, and new clinics are planned for La Crosse, Marathon and Racine counties, with a fourth to be split between Douglas and Burnett counties.

DHS is also working with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) to set up a community vaccination clinic in Milwaukee, Van Dijk said. And the department is working with the city health department and the city and county governments there on ways to expand community vaccination programs into neighborhoods to address disparities resulting in 4% of Black residents receiving the vaccine compared with 13% of white residents, she added.

Because of the limited vaccine supplies in Wisconsin to date, DHS has been providing shots to specific groups in order of priority. The first to get them were health care workers starting in December, followed by nursing home residents and staff. Those groups are nearly all vaccinated, while about 88% of residents and employees of assisted living homes and other long-term-care facilities have been given shots, Van Dijk said.

Police and first responders also were prioritized, and the state is now about halfway through vaccinating residents 65 and older. Wisconsin opens up the next priority group once at least 50% of the people in the previous priority group have received the vaccine, and Van Dijk said the state is meeting its goal to start vaccinating education employees by March 1, while continuing to complete vaccinations in the previous group.

With some schools already teaching in-person class again and others preparing to resume in-person instead of virtual class soon — and because children are still considered too young to receive the COVID-19 vaccine — “We wanted to get our educators vaccinated as quickly as possible,” Van Dijk said.

DHS has estimated that child care providers, educators in public and private schools and higher education employees who are in direct contact with students account for about 225,000 people.

“We know teachers work every day with a population that is not able to be vaccinated because of their age,” Van Dijk continued. “So vaccination is one part of creating safety in schools.”

CDC guidelines unveiled Feb. 12 offer some hope that in-person schooling can be conducted safely — but the vaccine alone is not enough to ensure that, she added. The guidelines emphasize the importance of faithfully following other virus mitigation strategies: wearing a mask, maintaining physical distance, regular and thorough hand-washing and ensuring that coughs and sneezes are contained.

Also essential, Van Dijk pointed out, are “good environmental controls and isolation and quarantine for people who are ill.”

A spike in positive tests that University of Wisconsin officials recorded last week in the student population may present a warning, but it’s not yet a cause for alarm, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the bureau of communicable disease at DHS.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer with the Dept. of Health Services answers questions during a COVID-19 briefing via phone on 03/23/20. (Photo: screenshot from YouTube of call.)
Dr. Ryan Westergaard

While he continues to advocate caution, Westergaard said test result turnaround time has improved. DHS and Public Health Madison & Dane County have been providing contact tracing support to the university, and “I would say we’ve gotten better at doing that,” he added.

“We are not protected from having ongoing threats in the community in which you need to continue to do all the things that we know prevent infection,” Westergaard said. At the same time, he believes the campus community faces less risk of repeating the late August and September 2020 surge that sent case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths skyrocketing across the state.

It is “impossible to predict the size and scope of a new outbreak as we go forward,” Westergaard said. But, he added, “I think we can feel good about the things that we’ve learned and the resources we put in place that we can get on top of it.”

Despite the overall decline in case numbers, DHS officials reiterated Tuesday that people should not relax their guard. As of Tuesday, Westergaard noted, there were six new confirmed cases of COVID-19 from the strain recently identified in England that spreads more easily.

“Statewide, disease activity is lower, but it’s still high,” said Westergaard. Cases are being confirmed at a daily rate of 200 new positive tests per 100,000 people over two weeks — “or 20 times higher than what we would consider a low disease activity level,” he said.

“It’s definitely true that we’re in a much better position than we were at the beginning of winter,” he added. But “we’re still not where we want to be. And the virus is continuing to circulate in communities at a level that is too high.”

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.