‘It helps tremendously’: Mobile vaccination teams set out to expand access

BARABOO, Wis. – Getting the COVID-19 vaccine everywhere it needs to go is a big task, but a new program is underway bringing resources to all pockets of Wisconsin.

On Tuesday, the State’s mobile vaccination program launched in an effort to accelerate vaccine distribution and expand access. It’s a partnership between the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and the Wisconsin National Guard, with collaboration from local health departments, as well as nursing and pharmacy students.

WING Major Joe Trovato said 36 Guard soldiers and airmen are part of nine mobile vaccination teams, answering the call of local health departments and heading wherever needed.

“We pride ourselves on being agile, flexible, adaptable,” Trovato said, adding that they’ll mostly help out with administrative duties such as checking people in and providing information on the vaccine so others can devote their time to the vaccinations themselves.

The Guard had a team head to its first mobile clinic in Greendale Tuesday, according to Trovato. A team also went to Baraboo for a clinic on Thursday, helping log data and welcome people.

In a room of people waiting to get shots, Sauk County Emergency Management Director Jeff Jelinek described the energy as “excitement.”

“You can see so many people smiling. Usually it’s crying, right?” said Jelinek, who’s acting as the health department’s COVID-19 incident commander.

Health officials face a big challenge getting everyone vaccinated.

“It definitely takes all hands on deck, plus a few extras,” Jelinek said.

The county works with local health partners to match people who are eligible to get vaccinated with the best place to do so, such as a health care provider, but has held a couple clinics to make sure no one slips through the cracks.

“We fill in the bits and pieces where needed, but we just don’t have the capacity to do every single person in Sauk County” Jelinek said.

Thursday’s clinic was the first with the National Guard’s help.

“It helps tremendously,” Jelinek said. “It helps the capacity of the health department, because we have so many other things going on. Contact tracing, disease investigation, plus normal life goes on.”

“This really is a group effort, not just the National Guard,” Trovato said. “We’re honored to be a small part of the overall pandemic response in Wisconsin.”

Nursing and pharmacy program student volunteers such as Maggie Hoernke are also part of the effort, taking on the role of vaccinators.

“I’m so excited. I’m such an advocate for public health. I get a huge smile on my face whenever I think of it,” said Hoernke, a third-year PharmD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Once COVID hit, I think learning was really put in the student’s hands.”

Trained as a vaccinator, she’s ready to take responding to the pandemic into her own hands, as well.

“I work in a hospital,” Hoernke said. “Seeing those patients that are really, really critically ill, that you walk down the hallways, you’re like, ‘Wow, let’s take care of this.'”

She’s working with second-year PharmD student Nikki Batterman, who isn’t able to give vaccines like third- and fourth-years, but is helping recruit fellow students. Batterman said an initial survey to gauge interest surprised her.

“I was really happy to see over 200 people had signed up to do it. It was awesome,” she said. “This is a great opportunity, as students, to learn at the same time everyone else is learning. Obviously, no one else was prepared for something like this.”

UW students who volunteer for this effort are eligible for a $500 tuition credit.

Hoernke said she’s looking forward to improving vaccine access throughout the state.

“Getting to places that otherwise would not have the supplies, the people, the volunteers, the time to get this done, I think that’s super crucial in making sure everyone’s taken care of,” she said.

There will be another clinic in Baraboo for Sauk County residents eligible for the vaccine next Thursday.

“All the support with the testing and vaccinations, it’s going to help us, definitely, and already has,” Jelinek said.

According to a news release from Gov. Tony Evers’ office, the intention is to expand the program as the state moves into Tier 1B and beyond.

In the meantime, Jelinek asks for patience from those who are waiting their turn for the vaccine.