MADISON – Wisconsin lags nearly all of its Midwest counterparts in getting its health care workers and first responders vaccinated against COVID-19 and has received fewer doses than other states of its size.
The state is 10th lowest out of 12 states in the Midwest in getting a first dose of the vaccine to its residents on a per capita basis, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And Wisconsin is 10th lowest in terms of how much vaccine has been distributed, per capita.
At 1,150 doses given per 100,000 residents in Wisconsin – or about 1.2% of the population – only Michigan and Kansas ranked lower for the rate at which its population was being vaccinated.
Topping the list were North and South Dakota, which have given shots to roughly 3% of their residents.
Nationally, a little over 1.3% of the U.S. population has received doses of the vaccine.
Wisconsin has been allocated more than 265,000 doses of the vaccine, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. As of Monday it had received about 208,075, according to the CDC.
Data indicate Wisconsin has administered roughly a third of the doses it has received – the ninth lowest of the 12 states in the Midwest, but a little better than the nationwide average.
If implemented widely, the vaccine could revive the state’s economy and save thousands of lives. But the state’s rollout is faltering – some health care providers say they haven’t even been told when they’ll receive their doses.
“It’s chaos,” Kalpana Kumar, a Pewaukee-based private practice medical doctor, said in an interview. “I haven’t received any communication.”
Kumar, who has been practicing medicine for three decades, said she doesn’t know how to get doses of the vaccine. Nobody from the state Department of Health Services or her local health department contacted her about when she and her staff would receive the shots, she said.
Efforts to find out on her own have been fruitless, too.
“I couldn’t even reach them – there’s no email to directly contact,” Kumar said about Gov. Tony Evers’ office. She said she spoke to someone at the state health department who said she would get a call back, but it never came.
“It’s like shouting into a well,” she said. “It’s just one of those very bizarre, disorganized efforts.”
Jennifer Miller, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said state health officials are working with health care systems, local health departments, and other public health partners to deliver vaccines to health care workers like Kumar’s staff.
“As more vaccinators across the state continue to build up their infrastructure, we are leveraging local capacity to provide vaccinations to these providers,” Miller said.
Miller said local health departments will play a lead role in the effort.
“Providers are encouraged to partner with their local health department to deliver vaccines to EMS and other unaffiliated Phase 1a health care workers,” Miller said.
Miller did not answer questions Monday about the low Midwest ranking of the state’s plan to distribute COVID-19 vaccinations.
Health officials are expected to discuss who should receive the vaccine in the next phase of Wisconsin’s rollout during a Tuesday morning meeting of the State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee’s vaccine distribution subcommittee, sources told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
A spokeswoman for the agency refused to allow a Journal Sentinel reporter to interview a member of the committee Monday.
‘It’s just a waiting game’
Meanwhile, some firefighters and paramedics across Wisconsin are frustrated that they have not been able to access vaccines yet.
Such emergency medical workers are supposed to be part of the first wave of vaccinations but officials in at least two fire departments say they are in the dark about when their first responders will get shots.
As first responders who work in close proximity to sick patients, they expected to be included in the first wave of those being vaccinated, said Jerry Biggart of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin.
“We are in confined spaces, in very tight little ambulances and we don’t have negative pressure like hospitals have. We go into houses that have a bunch of people with no masks, taking no precautions. We go into bedrooms, in confined spaces, then into hospitals where lots of sick people are gathered, then firehouses which are also confined spaces,” he said. “We feel that our risks are great.”
Biggart and other emergency responders said it was a mistake for the Department of Health Services to allocate all of the initial supplies to hospitals and health systems and not direct any doses to Milwaukee County, which is equipped to handle the vaccines that needed to be chilled.
“We work in a unique environment,” said Chris Anderson, director of operations for Bell Ambulance. “We just want to be considered. We just want to have some sort of end in sight.”
The first responders, once vaccinated, would also be in a position to help vaccinate others and could alleviate the pressure on the public health system, they said.
Western Lakes Fire District Chief Brad Bowen and Lake Country Fire and Rescue Chief Matt Fennig said their departments haven’t received vaccines and don’t know when they will.
Both departments submitted the necessary paperwork to get on the list before Thanksgiving, the officials said.
“Nobody answers the phones, nobody responds to emails. It’s just a waiting game,” Bowen said. He said it’s “sad and frustrating” especially since he had three more employees contract COVID-19 this past weekend.
The Waukesha Fire Department is coordinating its needs through the Waukesha County Public Health Department, with a single application on behalf of all county fire departments, Fire Chief Steve Howard said. The plan has been submitted but hasn’t yet been approved.
“Let me put it this way: It can’t happen fast enough for anybody,” Howard said.
Some departments are receiving doses from local clinics and hospitals who have shots left over. A spokeswoman for Ascension Wisconsin said getting vaccine shots to emergency medical workers is a “high priority” for the health care system.
The Greenfield Fire Department started receiving vaccinations Monday after getting on multiple lists for vaccinations, including with Ascension in Franklin, to increase its chances of getting doses, Fire Chief Jon Cohn said.
Cohn said it also sought vaccines through the Greenfield Health Department and the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.
Cohn expects that by the end of the week, all members of the department who wish to receive the vaccine will have gotten it.
Ascension in Franklin recently had vaccine left at the end of a clinic and reached out to ambulances that had been cycling through to see if the EMTs wanted a dose, Cohn said.
“These don’t come in single doses, so once you puncture a vial, there’s 10 doses and you have to use those 10 doses,” he said.
West Allis Fire Chief Mason Pooler said firefighters could receive vaccines later this week through Milwaukee County’s Office of Emergency Management, which put in an order on behalf of all the firefighters and paramedics in the county, or through the West Allis Health Department.
Harlan Krumholz, a professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine, said the uneven distribution and use of vaccines among states is likely the result of them “reinventing the wheel rather than following a script.” The strength of the public health infrastructure also varies by state.
“We ought to be able to leverage public-private partnerships to get this done well,” he said. “With some national coordination we can transform this process into a smoothly functioning, highly efficient machine.”
If it does not go smoothly there may be a price to pay. On Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he may fine hospitals that fail to deploy vaccine they get within a week and may also deny them further doses, according to Reuters.
“I don’t want the vaccine in a fridge or a freezer, I want it in somebody’s arm,” Cuomo said.
Raquel Rutledge, John Fauber, Daphne Chen, Evan Frank and Jim Riccioli of the Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.
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