State plans to make additional groups eligible for COVID-19 vaccine; Where do you stand?

Police, firefighters eligible next week as part of Phase 1B

MADISON, Wis. — As more and more health care and front line workers are vaccinated against COVID-19, many are wondering when it will be their turn.

Currently, the State is in Phase 1A, which means vaccinating about 450,000 health care workers, along with about 100,000 long-term care facility residents and staff members.

According to the Department of Health Services, Phase 1A does not need to be complete before moving on to Phase 1B. On Monday, Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk announced that first responders including police and firefighters will be eligible for vaccination next week.

Starting January 18, Wisconsin police officers and firefighters will be eligible to get the #COVID19 vaccine. Learn more at #COVID19_WI #YouStopTheSpread

Posted by Wisconsin Department of Health Services on Monday, January 11, 2021

“This is a seamless way to begin our movement into Phase 1B, since our police and fire departments are already working so closely with EMS and local and tribal health departments across the state,” Van Dijk said. “However, there are many people in Phase 1A who still need to be vaccinated and many more people in Phase 1B who will soon be eligible to receive vaccine.”

She estimated about 25-30% of Phase 1A participants had been vaccinated. That includes Dr. Alison Schwartz, the associate medical director of infectious diseases at SSM Health in Madison, who got her first dose in December.

“It feels really good,” Schwartz said. “It feels really exciting.”

You don’t often hear that said about shots, but once the COVID-19 vaccine goes into health care workers’ arms it takes weight off their shoulders.

“I don’t have as great of a fear bringing something home to my family,” Schwartz said. “Even just being vaccinated, the risk of passing the infection is much lower.”

Schwartz is one of about 7,000 SSM Health workers who have gotten their vaccine since Phase 1A began in mid-December. That encompasses all the SSM Health employees who want to be vaccinated, according to Wisconsin Vice President of Pharmacy Services Mo Kharbat.

“We feel we did what we had to do to protect ourselves so we can protect others as well,” Kharbat said, adding that SSM Health is now moving on to offering vaccines for health care workers from more than 100 unaffiliated health care organizations, such as independent practices, pharmacies and dental offices, which is all part of Phase 1A.

As of Friday, UW-Health had started vaccinating about 75% of its 13,000 workers, according to Dr. Jeff Pothof. The health system joins SSM Health as vaccinators in our state setting their sights on an imminent Phase 1B.

“When we get direction from the state on what that pool will be, (we’re considering) how do we quickly get them through our process, get vaccines out of freezers and into people’s arms,” Pothof said.

“By the end of January we believe we will get to the point where a large percentage of 1A healthcare workers in the state have been vaccinated,” Kharbat said. “At that time, we will hopefully get the green light to go to 1B.”

Soon, DHS expects to get final recommendations on who exactly should be included in that 1B category from the State Disaster and Medical Advisory Committee. It’s a group of experts parsing out who will be next in line, taking into account guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

The CDC and ACIP recommend that “frontline essential workers” be included in Phase 1B, leaving it up to states to decide which groups that constitutes.

In the committee’s latest meeting Friday, most members agreed to move forward with a combination of two of its four options, recommending that Phase 1B include first responders, educators, correction workers, those in mink husbandry and congregate groups including people who are incarcerated, along with adults 70 and older. That’s a bit lower than the ACIP’s recommendation that adults 75 and older be included in Phase 1B.

“As the group has thought about populations, they’ve really focused on who is most vulnerable. Who is most at risk?” Willems Van Dijk said. “What essential services do we need to make sure are in place?”

The SDMAC’s recommendations are expected early this week, though DHS has final say on which groups are included. Willems Van Dijk said Monday that first responders would be the first group as part of Phase 1B to be eligible.

The committee’s recommendations as they stand would leave public transit, grocery store, manufacturing and other essential workers for Phase 1C, which would likely include those with high risk medical conditions, too.

“Depending on our supply of vaccine, which is the limiting factor of everything, it will take a similar amount of time to get through Phase 1B (as Phase 1A) before we’re ready to open Phase 1C,” Willems Van Dijk said, adding that 1B will likely include more people than Phase 1A. “A lot of the system that we are setting up for Phase 1A, especially the system to vaccinate unaffiliated health care workers, will be the same system we’ll have in place to vaccinate for example, police officers or firefighters or teachers or day care workers. The system doesn’t have to be rebuilt with every phase of the vaccine.”

Using Willems Van Dijk’s estimation, Phase 1C could start in late winter or spring. Anyone not included in the three subcategories of Phase 1 will be part of Phase 2, which health leaders such as Kharbat estimate might take us in to the summer.

At SSM Health, Schwartz just got her second dose of the vaccine and has this message for everyone waiting on their first:

“Things are happening, and I think they’re going to continue to ramp up as we move into the New Year, and hopefully as we look toward spring, summer and fall, people are anxious for some return to normalcy,” she said.

While health systems and local health departments don’t want people calling asking when they can get their vaccine, Schwartz said if you do have any questions or concerns about the vaccine itself, to give your general provider a call or check out the CDC’s website.

The SDMAC meets early Tuesday morning to further discuss vaccine phase recommendations, which will be open to public comment once released.