Vaccine bills get public hearing; DHS says they duplicate work underway

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

    Two bills that would impose new requirements on the state’s COVID-19 vaccination program sailed through an Assembly Health Committee public hearing Wednesday and could head to the Assembly floor as soon as next week.

    One measure, AB-4, requires the state Department of Health Services (DHS) to expand the category of professionals authorized to administer vaccines to include pharmacy technicians and students studying to be pharmacists who have taken required coursework on vaccine administration.

    The second bill, AB-5, would require DHS to offer the vaccine immediately to anyone 60 or older. It also would require the department to offer the vaccine to the general public starting March 15, and to submit a plan to follow through on that requirement to the Legislature by Feb. 28.

    In written testimony to the committee, Andrew Hoyer-Booth, legislative director for DHS, pointed out that AB-5 did not address the “critical limitation” that has hampered the vaccine program: the supply of vaccine from the federal government.

    Hoyer-Booth wrote that DHS had already submitted a vaccination plan to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in October 2020. That plan outlined the DHS phased rollout for the vaccine “and why it is necessary until supply increases,” he wrote.

    “For reference, this plan was shared with the committee following the public hearing last week and it is also available on our website,” the DHS official wrote.

    Both bills will go to a vote of the Health Committee next Tuesday, Jan. 26, at 9 a.m., said the committee chair, Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin), who introduced both pieces of legislation.

    The second bill before the committee requires the department to do something that it has, in effect, already done: to allow teams administering the vaccine in nursing homes to also offer it to residents of assisted living or senior housing complexes located on the same campus. That is already happening, a DHS official told the health committee in a public hearing last week.

    Another requirement in AB-5 calls for DHS to establish a statewide website that people can use to sign up for the vaccine. Hoyer-Booth said the agency has contracted a vendor to help develop “a comparable system” that will be online in the coming weeks — and that prescriptive language in the bill could wind up costing the state more money if it requires reworking that contract.

    Witnesses at Wednesday’s public hearing included representatives of the pharmacy profession, endorsing allowing technicians and students to administer the vaccine. A lobbyist for the pharmacy chain Walgreens, which has a contract to vaccinate nursing home and other long-term care residents in the state, testified in favor of allowing nursing home vaccine teams to also vaccinate assisted living residents on the same site during the same visit, as did the head of an association representing nonprofit nursing homes and other senior housing and long-term care facilities.

    Also testifying were representatives of two business lobbies, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) and the Wisconsin Grocers Association. Earlier Wednesday, members of the state’s State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee, which has advised DHS on how to prioritize segments of the population for the vaccine, signed off on including grocery workers as part of the current category of “essential workers” to be given the vaccine. Police officers, firefighters and other first responders are already in that category.

    Meanwhile, WMC’s workforce policy director, Chris Reader, testified that manufacturing workers should also be included in the “essential workers” category. “Hundreds of thousands of manufacturing workers are essentially being told by the state and the administration that they are not critical, despite being told that they were critical for the last 10 months,” Reader stated.

    Following federal recommendations, DHS has already planned to start giving the shot to people 65 or older starting next week, Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison), the ranking Democrat on the Health Committee, told the Wisconsin Examiner Wednesday following the hearing. 

    “The bigger issue continues to be vaccine supply,” said Subeck. She blamed the Trump administration’s handling of the vaccine rollout.

    “Recent news that an expected increase is not actually available in federal reserves as promised highlights the problem with these sorts of arbitrary deadlines,” Subeck said. “This bill is clearly more about making a political statement than it is about good policy.”

    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.