Grocery workers, bus drivers, inmates among latest recommendations for vaccine eligibility

SDMAC to review vaccine subcommittee recommendations

MADISON, Wis. – COVID-19 vaccine demand exceeds supply, but a state committee of experts is moving closer to settling on who they say should be eligible for vaccines next.

The State has already decided that police, firefighters and people 65 and older should be part of the next phase of distribution, Tier 1B, as vaccinations of health care workers and long-term care residents and workers continue as part of 1A.

The State Disaster and Medical Advisory Committee is making recommendations to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services on which other groups should be included in 1B.

Last week, the committee opened a set of recommendations for public comment, receiving nearly 5,000. A vaccine subcommittee of SDMAC met Wednesday morning to discuss that.

“This is an incredible outflow of interest and participation,” said Dr. Jonathan Temte, a co-chair of the subcommittee.

Since the State recently announced vaccine eligibility for those 65 and older, committee members focused in on other groups, like who they would consider public-facing essential workers eligible for Tier 1B.

Nearly 1,800 public comments supported including food industry and grocery workers, who weren’t previously part of SDMAC’s recommendations for Phase 1B.

“We concur these are essential workers maintaining the function of society,” said Dr. Edward Belongia, a member of the subcommittee, during the meeting.

They chose to include grocery, food production, hunger-relief and agriculture workers in recommendations they will send to the full committee, along with education and child care workers, who also received “overwhelming support,” according to public comment documents.

The subcommittee chose to include public transit workers in 1B, too, which would mean bus drivers, but not taxi drivers, rideshare workers or airplane service employees, though a minority supported including them, as well.

Public utility employees and 911 operators were also included in the subcommittee’s recommendations. They continued support for the state’s about 300 mink farmers, citing biosecurity risks because of virus transmission between humans and minks, and for people living in congregate settings.

That includes inmates, although more than 70 public comments reviewed showed opposition, “some quite vehement.” The subcommittee still chose to include people who are incarcerated, noting their right to health care and risk of COVID spread.

Some in the public appealed to include veterinarians and librarians, which didn’t get majority support from the subcommittee. Although there were more than 500 comments in support of including people with risk factors and medical conditions in 1B, most in the subcommittee thought the group was too large to justify delaying vaccinations for other groups. Belongia voiced his opposition.

“Every case made is compelling, so I can’t disagree with any group in here. It troubles me that some of the people at high risk of dying from COVID-19 are not included in this group. For me, that’s a very important consideration,” Belongia said. “We’re protecting lots of essential workers, and they deserve to be protected, but we’re not protecting people with cancer, we’re not protecting people with heart disease, kidney disease, etc.”

The subcommittee members did include Family Care and IRIS recipients in 1B.

“A challenge we face and that the committee has faced is that every group that they have looked at … have valid reasons why they are on the list to receive vaccines before the general public does,” DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said. “We don’t have enough vaccine to meet the needs of all those people.”

SDMAC meets Thursday to review the vaccine subcommittee’s latest recommendations, and then the State has the final say.

“We will look at that list very carefully, and we will look at the analysis by group and we will make a determination,” Willems Van Dijk said. “Then we’ll need to think carefully at what point in time we add additional groups into this pool of people eligible for vaccine.”

If the subcommittee’s recommendations stand, Phase 1B and the current Phase 1A would make up about 45% of the state’s adult population.