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Wisconsin Announces Next Groups Eligible For Coronavirus Vaccine, Possibly By March 1

Chuck Quirmbach
Grocery workers, such as those employed at this Milwaukee Pick 'n Save, would be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine by March 1, under a state plan announced Tuesday.

The state of Wisconsin is spelling out who will tentatively be eligible next for the COVID-19 vaccine, perhaps around March 1. Meanwhile, local officials say they're trying to iron out problems with vaccinating those currently eligible — especially people 65 and older who are not in nursing homes.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) says all of the following groups will be eligible for the vaccine no later than March 1, assuming there's enough vaccine:

  • People working in education and child care
  • Those enrolled in Medicaid long-term care programs
  • Some essential workers who face the public, such as grocery and transit employees
  • Some non-frontline health care personnel
  • Staff and residents in congregate living settings such as homeless shelters and prisons

DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said that will be about 600,000 people, and even getting down to that number was difficult.
"We want everyone who wants a vaccine in Wisconsin to get a vaccine. And in the future, that will be a reality. But with our current federal allocation, this is not a reality today. So, we need to prioritize,” said Van Dijk.

Credit Screengrab by Chuck Quirmbach
Wisconsin DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk spoke to the news media Tuesday.

Currently, Wisconsin receives about 70,000 vaccine doses per week. But the state still has to vaccinate about a quarter-million health care workers and has just started immunizing the 700,000 people age 65 and older who are not in skilled care facilities.

It appears the most controversial groups eligible around March 1 will be prison and jail inmates. 

The state's largest business group, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), said manufacturing workers should be eligible, instead of prisoners.

"Manufacturers have been an essential part of Wisconsin's response to this virus since the spring, and they have produced critical medical supplies, personal protective equipment and just really have kept our economy moving,” said WMC Spokesperson Nick Novak.

Novak said federal health experts have advised including manufacturing workers in the current vaccination line-up, or what's known as phase 1b. 

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce headquarters in downtown Madison.

But state health official Willems Van Dijk said people who are incarcerated are at great risk of getting COVID-19.

"I think the other thing to remember is that outbreaks in a prison have an effect on the community, as well. It's not like it's contained within a prison. When inmates become ill from this illness, they spread it to the people who work in the prison, and the people who work in the prison go out into the community and spread it to others,” she said.

The state plan also puts several hundred mink farmers in the group eligible for the vaccine around March 1. Division of Public Health Immunization Manager Stephanie Schauer said that's for bio-security reasons. 

"Mink can be infected by the SARS COV-2 virus, and we need to make sure we don't have a situation like we had in Denmark, where a large number of mink had to be culled,” said Schauer.

Health officials say in northern Wisconsin late last year, it appears workers infected mink at two farms, leading to the death of 5,000 of the small animals.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
Froedtert Hospital in Wauwatosa

Meanwhile in Milwaukee, Mayor Tom Barrett said he's still working on getting people 65 and older the COVID-19 vaccine. The state approved that group last week, and health care providers like Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin network have started immunizing people who have in-network doctors. But Barrett said that's adding to racial disparity.

"We know people of color and economically disadvantaged people are less likely to have connections to major health systems. So, as these systems start vaccinating their patients, the disparities will continue,” he said.

Barrett said he's pushing for local Federally Qualified Health Centers to have a larger role in vaccinations, because the centers are located in chronically underserved neighborhoods.

The Milwaukee Health Department says next Monday, February 1, the Wisconsin Center will be open for vaccinating a limited number of city residents 65 and older.

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