‘A lot of people are pissed about it’: Wisconsinites with chronic medical conditions feel left behind in vaccine distribution

DHS: Considering those with chronic conditions for Phase 1C

MADISON, Wis. – Waiting for the COVID-19 vaccine is tough, especially for people with chronic conditions who face extra risk if they get sick.

The state is moving into Phase 1B of vaccine eligibility. Those 65 and older are already able to get the vaccine, while educators begin as early as next week, with public-facing workers such as grocery store employees to follow.

People with medical conditions that put them at higher risk for complications are not included in the current phase, and there’s no indication of when they will be eligible.

Bill Sterna of Madison, who isn’t included in any of the upcoming eligible groups, has a question for state officials.

“Why have you thrown me under the bus?” he asked.

The proverbial bus has hit Sterna before. In early life, that meant a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis, putting him at higher risk for complications like heart attacks. In later life, he suffered a traumatic brain injury.

“I’ve been through a lot in life,” Sterna said. “I’ve survived a lot of things.”

Now, he’s facing the pandemic and the anxiety it brings.

“Not getting out and exercising is a big thing with COVID,” Sterna said. “I’m a dancer. I love dancing.”

His concern extends to his friends who are under 65 but who also have chronic conditions and aren’t eligible for the vaccine, either.

That includes Sterna’s longtime friend Dan Rhutasel in Chippewa Falls.

“I remember Bill from third grade, a long time,” Rhutasel said. “Bill and I actually were college roommates for a while, too.”

With his heart condition, he said he doesn’t go in public to do anything. He stays in the car when he goes grocery shopping with his wife.

“I really can’t get sick,” Rhutasel said. “I’m pretty sure I’d be dead.”

Guidelines put people with underlying medical conditions in Phase 1C

“Certainly, people who are age 64 and under with chronic conditions are another group at risk,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. “That is a group under consideration for a subsequent phase.”

Willems Van Dijk said they’re not considering changes in Phase 1B, which includes public-facing workers such as grocery workers because of their exposure, and people ages 65 and older because of their increased risk.

In a media briefing Thursday, she said, “87% of the deaths in our state have been people over 65. That risk of mortality was very high in (the State Disaster and Medical Advisory Committee’s) deliberations, but they also considered risk of exposure and what groups also posed risk of exposure and risk of spreading to other people.”

It was a balancing of that criteria that led to prioritizing people living in congregate settings such as inmates and older adults in Phase 1B, Willems Van Dijk said. State officials have also said that vaccinating the older population is more feasible and makes the greatest impact when optimizing the efficiency and speed of vaccine distribution.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults with conditions such as cancer, Down Syndrome, obesity, certain heart conditions and Type 2 diabetes are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Based on current knowledge, adults with conditions including asthma, hypertension, liver disease, neurological conditions and Type 1 diabetes might be at increased risk.

The CDC recommends frontline essential workers be included in Phase 1B, listing first responders, food and grocery workers, public transit workers and educators, but not people ages 16-64 with underlying medical conditions. Instead, they suggest putting them in Phase 1C.

DHS said those with high-risk medical conditions are being considered for Phase 1C in the state, which might come more quickly than anticipated with an expected increase in vaccine supply. Still, there’s no word on timeline.

Those at risk isolate and wait

COVID-19 hit Sterna in September. With all of his precautions, he’s not sure where he got it, but he said he’s happy he made it through with only flu-like symptoms.

Though he has lasting issues keeping his blood sugar in control, he considers himself lucky.

“I was very fortunate,” Sterna said.

He worries it won’t be the same for some of his friends. Rhutasel suggested the state prioritize those on Social Security Disability Insurance.

“I feel like the people on SSDI and others with disabilities have been put in second position to those that are 65 and older,” Rhutasel said. “There are a lot of people 65 and older in great health that probably have a way better chance of surviving this than people like I do.”

Although Sterna has already had COVID, he worries about the possibility of being re-infected.

“With the new variant, now I’m getting more concerned,” Sterna.

He doesn’t want his friends or others at risk getting left behind.

“You’ve blown us off, and I’m kind of pissed about it,” Sterna said. “I know a lot of people are pissed about it.”