School employees, grocery workers, inmates and 911 operators would be included in Phase 1b of the state’s COVID vaccine distribution plan, under a recommendation a task force issued Wednesday.
Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services has already decided to include a large group of people in Phase 1b of vaccine distribution: everyone age 65 and over. Phase 1a included frontline healthcare workers and those in nursing homes.
Now, the vaccine advisory committee is recommending other groups to put next in line for Wisconsin’s limited supply of vaccine. It received over 5,000 public comments advocating for or against certain groups.
On Wednesday, the committee voted to include grocery workers and food manufacturing employees in Phase 1b. Committee member Edward Belongia said members received more than 1,700 comments supporting inclusion of those workers.
“The workers have little or no control over their working environment, they’re often in low-paying jobs, and they don’t have paid sick leave,” Belongia said. “And they’re doing an essential function to ensure the integrity of our food supply. So based on those considerations, we felt it was appropriate to include them.”
Another non-controversial decision was to include those in education. The committee voted to include all childcare and K-12 school employees, but member Jonathan Temte recommended some limitations for colleges and universities.
“For post-secondary or higher education, vaccination [should] be limited to those who have been involved in face-to-face education,” Temte said.
The committee is trying to keep Phase 1b somewhat narrow, but it’s difficult to do when there are so many groups with higher risk for COVID exposure or severe disease.
The members agonized over whether to include airline workers and rideshare drivers, but ultimately recommended that just bus drivers be included as eligible public transit workers.
Perhaps the most polarizing group to include in Phase 1b is the incarcerated. Committee member Dan Hopfensperger said there were many public comments in opposition.
“Some [were] quite vehement,” Hopfensperger said. “A lot of ‘Because I’m taxpayer, I should be able to get the vaccine first.’ A lot of ‘They did the crime, they should do the time.’”
Some of the comments opposed putting prisoners before elderly people. But that concern may be allayed now, with DHS’s inclusion of those 65 years and older in 1b.
The committee does plan to include adults in congregate living facilities, such as group homes or shelters, in Phase 1b. Temte said, excluding inmates from the congregate living category would be unfair.
“If we are saying, ‘Well, we’re going to punish these people yet again,’ this constitutes kind of a double punishment in treating them differently,” Temte said. “And I’m very uncomfortable with that.”
Ultimately, the committee decided to include incarcerated people in its Phase 1b recommendation.
One group it reluctantly did not include is those with comorbidities or pre-existing conditions, because some felt it would add too many people to Phase 1b, which already would encompass about 1.4 million people if the committee's recommendation is accepted.
Now, the Phase 1b proposal goes to the State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee Thursday morning, and then to the Department of Health Services.
Wisconsinites may have a final answer on who is next in line for the vaccine by the end of this week. But with the state’s limited supply, getting all eligible people vaccinated will be a long process.