Johnson & Johnson vaccine gives a boost to educator vaccination plan

Public health officials hope to see public willingness to get a shot increase over time

COVID 19 vaccine gloved hand holding vial
Artem Podrez | Pexels

The newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine for the coronavirus will help Wisconsin boost vaccinations for educators, who became eligible for the shot this week.

Wisconsin expects to begin receiving its first allotment of about 48,000 doses of the new vaccine by next week, Deputy Health Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk told reporters Tuesday in a media update on the COVID-19 vaccination program from the state Department of Health Services (DHS). After the first batch is distributed, it may be late March before more of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine arrives in Wisconsin, however, to allow for producers to ramp up supplies, she said.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine — which is given in a single shot, unlike the two previous vaccines — will be directed toward teachers and child care workers initially. They make up the lead-off segment in the newest group of state residents to become eligible for the vaccine under priorities that were set as a result of supplies falling well short of demand.

Following them in line is a group that includes people enrolled in Medicaid long-term care programs; essential workers who interact with the public, including 911 operators, transit workers,  grocery store staff, and non-frontline essential health care employees; and the staff and residents in congregate living.

So far more than 1.4 million Wisconsin residents have gotten at least one vaccination from either the Pfizer or Moderna two-shot vaccines, and 510,049 people have completed the two-shot regimen. Wisconsin is among the top states in the nation for distributing 93% of its allocated supply of vaccine doses, Van Dijk said.

People in previous, higher-priority groups who haven’t gotten the vaccine still remain eligible, the deputy health secretary said, including frontline health care workers, nursing home staff and residents, police and fire personnel, prison employees and adults 65 or older.

Hopeful about vaccine skeptics

Although a new poll released Monday suggested that as many as 41% of the public might decline the vaccine, neither Van Dijk nor the DHS vaccine program manager, Stephanie Schauer, expressed alarm at that prospect. The survey found that 59% of respondents said they would accept a COVID-19 vaccine. “That’s improving,” said Van Dijk, noting that in previous surveys about 50% of the public said they were willing to be vaccinated.

Public health officials aren’t writing off the 41% who have expressed reluctance, however. While some might refuse vaccines of any kind, health workers are focusing on how to persuade the other segment of that group who they believe can come around.

“Studies are showing that if they know someone who has been vaccinated, that experience and recognizing that they’ve received the vaccine, they may be more likely to go ahead and then step up to the plate and receive their own vaccine once they see the experience of someone that they know and trust,” Schauer said.

That situation has already emerged among residents and staff members in nursing homes, where vaccinators have returned for a third visit and encountered people who were formerly skeptical and now willing to get the shot, she added.

DHS is also seeking community organizations interested in providing education and outreach to encourage the populations they serve to get vaccinated. “It’s important that we have a variety of messengers,” Schauer said.

Even as the vaccine supplies increase and hospitalizations, deaths and new cases of COVID-19 have fallen, there are reasons to be wary. Wisconsin hasn’t seen the level of mutant varieties of the virus that have appeared in some other states, but that doesn’t mean that the state has escaped those variants.  

Julie Willems Van Dijk
Julie Willems Van Dijk, Wisconsin Deputy Health Secretary (YouTube screen capture)

The steady decrease in new cases that has continued from before the beginning of the year has “stalled at around 600 cases per day, level for much of the last week or so,” Van Dijk said. The decline in deaths from the virus has also stopped, at around 18 deaths a day on average. As of Tuesday, the total number of COVID-19 cases stood at 564,592, and the total number of deaths at 6,440.

“We would like to see that number continuing to decrease especially as we vaccinate more people,” she added. “And so that flatlining of that could also be an indicator that we have some level of variants in our state.”

For that reason, public health specialists continue to emphasize safety measures — wearing masks in public, staying home except when necessary, frequent hand washing, avoiding gatherings and socializing in person only with the members of one’s own household.

“We’ve made one-two-three steps ahead — we do not want to take five or 10 steps back,” Van Dijk said. “Let’s hang on, let’s get through March, let’s get through April, let’s get these additional doses that are coming into people’s arms. Let’s get that rate of vaccination up, let’s get spring to come, so we can do a lot of our socializing outside. And I think we could be in a very different place come early summer, early June, than we are now.”

She continued: “But we don’t want to go back and have to deal with a third huge surge in cases, which along with it will come many hospitalizations, and many deaths of people that don’t have to die.”

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.