The rollout of the first round of COVID-19 vaccine is getting off to a slow start, with 1,101 of the state’s health care workers receiving the injection in the first three days.
The state received 49,726 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine in the first half of the week, but hospitals are navigating issues surrounding cold storage requirements for the drug.
Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for communicable diseases at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said health systems receiving the vaccine have been doing “dress rehearsals” for getting it out of freezers and into people’s arms without a hitch, starting with small numbers.
“There are new workflows that we want to make sure we’re doing exactly right with no mistakes, and that takes some time to scale up,” said Westergaard in a Thursday call with reporters. “I think every health system that’s participating is going to have a similar learning curve.
The vaccine has to be used within five days once it is thawed, so hospitals are under the gun to use it in that time frame to ensure that none of it gets wasted.
At SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, about 50 front-line health care workers are being vaccinated every hour, said spokeswoman Kim Sveum. The hospital, one of eight hubs around the state that have ultra-cold freezer capacity that can store the vaccine long-term, received 6,000 doses this week, about 4,000 of which are going to SSM employees. The remaining 2,000 are being shipped to other vaccine sites in the state.
At UW Hospital, which received 3,900 doses this week, about 1,000 employees should be vaccinated by the end of the week, according to spokeswoman Emily Kumlien.
Officials have billed the arrival of the vaccine as a light at the end of the tunnel after nearly 10 months weathering a pandemic that has killed 4,255 Wisconsinites, among them 59 reported on Thursday. The state reported 4,255 new COVID-19 cases, for a total of 448,441 since the start of the pandemic.
Officials expressed relief that the anticipated post-Thanksgiving spike never materialized, but are now turning their attention to the upcoming Christmas and New Year’s holidays, which could increase the spread through gatherings with family and friends.
Andrea Palm, Department of Health Services secretary-designee, urged people to step up the use of masks, social distancing and hand washing and staying home whenever possible “so what we saw coming out of Thanksgiving we can have a repeat of coming out of Christmas.”
The case numbers are down sharply from November, when daily cases reached as high as 7,989. But officials stressed that while the numbers have plateaued, they’re still high, and the rate of tests turning out positive is about 10%. Health officials say a rate of 5% or lower is needed to effectively control the spread.
"It’s important to remember that our daily numbers are still too high,” Palm said. “We still have staffing shortages at hospitals. We still have hospitals that are strained.”
Testing is expected to ramp up starting next week, when Wisconsin is in line to receive 101,000 doses of vaccine from Moderna, assuming that vaccine gains FDA approval this week, as expected.
With the arrival of that vaccine, which doesn’t have as stringent cold-storage requirements as the Pfizer vaccine, the state will start vaccinating nursing home residents in the state, as well as staff at those facilities. That effort could be completed by the end of January, officials have said. Facilities enrolled in the program have a total of 28,451 beds, said a DHS spokeswoman, though it was unclear how many residents were actually in the facilities. Those vaccinations will be done on-site by Walgreens and CVS, which have contracted with the federal government to do the job.
Palm said about a quarter of nursing home residents should be vaccinated in the first week of the program, which starts on Dec. 28.
Gov. Tony Evers, facing an end of government funding for testing, contact tracing, vaccine delivery and other efforts related to the pandemic, said the state may be able to pass legislation to fund some of those efforts, but not until after the first of the year. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, has ruled out convening the Senate this month.
"If they absolutely refuse to come in in December, that kind of narrows it down to after the first of the year,” Evers said.
Evers has said the state needs at least $446 million for COVID-19 costs for the first quarter of 2021, and it remains uncertain that Congress will pass a relief bill this month.
Also on Thursday, Evers announced the rollout next week of an app that will notify people if they’ve been in contact with someone who’s recently tested positive for COVID-19. At least 19 states are already using the app.
Using Bluetooth technology, the WI Exposure Notification app, which launches on Dec. 23, doesn’t collect personal data. It shares signals with other smartphones nearby that have activated the app.
The app, available on Google Play, has to be enabled prior to receiving a positive test result. Anyone who tests positive will receive a code users enter into the app, which emits signals during the time they could be contagious.