State prepares for first round of COVID-19 vaccines by early next year

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

    If all goes well, a vaccine to protect against COVID-19 and the coronavirus could reach Wisconsin in late December or early next year, but the first recipients will be frontline health workers and support staff in hospitals.

    “This is a massive vaccination effort, and we’re going to need all hands on deck in order to get as many people in Wisconsin immunized as want to be immunized,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary for the state Department of Health Services (DHS) during a media briefing Tuesday on the state’s vaccine preparations.

    Vaccines for healthcare workers will be distributed through employee health departments initially as well as to long-term care facilities to administer to their staff and residents, Van Dijk said. Vulnerable populations, such as elderly people in long-term care, will also be early recipients.

    Once the vaccine is available for the general public, it will be shipped to local primary healthcare providers, but the state also expects to establish community vaccination programs similar to the community testing programs for the virus that are in place around the state. The vaccine will be administered in two doses at least three or four weeks apart.

    “It will take several months before vaccine supplies will meet the public demand,” said Stephanie Schauer, the immunization program manager for the Division of Public Health at DHS.

    The distribution plan calls for healthcare providers to work through the Wisconsin Immunization Registry, which is already used to distribute vaccines for children. Schauer said the system calls for providers to place orders for the vaccine in the registry. That information will be sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), then passed on to manufacturers, who will ship the vaccine directly to the provider administering it.

    Before any vaccine can be distributed, manufacturers must receive authorization from the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Two manufacturers, Pfizer and Moderna, are already close to submitting emergency use authorization (EUA) requests.

    Van Dijk said that to ensure safety FDA scientists will independently review data from the vaccine tests themselves rather than relying on analyses from the manufacturers’ research teams. Once the vaccination program is underway, DHS will also monitor its safety, she added. The agency is also planning public education programs to address questions people might have about the vaccine.

    Pfizer’s vaccine requires cold storage at 80 degrees below zero until it is to be administered, while Moderna’s does not, Van Dijk said, so as part of the state’s preparation, DHS officials are investigating where there will be available freezer space around the state.

    The vaccine itself will be provided free to the state, but there may be costs associated with a vaccine program, Van Dijk said. Wisconsin  has received $3.1 million in federal support for its vaccination program but will need more, she added.

    The vaccine appears likely to be included among the preventive medicine services that the Affordable Care Act requires insurers to cover for free, but the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a lawsuit that could overturn the act. The court’s decision isn’t expected until the middle of 2021.

    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.