Gov. Tony Evers on Friday announced plans to launch mobile vaccination teams to speed up Wisconsin’s deployment of COVID-19 vaccinations, while also taking aim at the federal government for what he called a “botched” vaccine rollout.
The new vaccine program comes as Evers and his administration face mounting criticism from state Republicans over Wisconsin’s vaccine deployment effort. State Assembly leaders on Wednesday criticized Evers’ COVID-19 vaccination dissemination as “woefully inadequate.”
Adding to frustrations, the Democratic governor on Friday said Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Health Services Secretary Alex Azar told him earlier this week additional vaccines were available, but officials later said the stockpile had already been depleted. State health officials have said Wisconsin’s vaccine deployment is largely limited by the number of doses being provided from the federal government.
Evers said on a media call with reporters the situation amounted to “plain old obfuscation” and was “a slap in the face of the people of Wisconsin.”
“Frankly, I have no idea why they made that claim when they knew it wasn’t happening,” he said.
Evers, along with Democratic governors from Michigan and Minnesota, on Friday sent a letter to Azar expressing frustration with the “botched COVID-19 vaccine distribution” by President Donald Trump’s administration, while also urging Azar to grant permission for states to directly buy their own vaccine doses. The governors also called on the Trump administration to buy as many doses of vaccine as possible to provide to states.
“It has become abundantly clear that not only has the Trump administration botched the rollout of the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, but also that the American people have been misled about these delays,” the governors said in a joint statement.
The letter also notes that “millions of doses” of the Pfizer vaccine are available to the federal government.
“Without additional supply or authorization to purchase directly, our states may be forced to cancel plans for public vaccination clinics in the coming weeks, which are expected to vaccinate tens of thousands,” the governors said. “It’s time for the Trump administration to do the right thing and help us end this pandemic.”
Evers also announced plans Friday to issue a new COVID-19 public health emergency and 60-day extension of the state’s mask mandate, which was first issued in July. The statewide order requires everyone ages 5 and older to wear a face-covering when indoors or in any enclosed space open to the public. The most recent order is slated to conclude Jan. 19.
The Mobile Vaccination Program is slated to launch Tuesday, beginning with nine teams across the state, and is expected to be scaled up in later phases of vaccine deployment.
“These mobile vaccination teams are going to help us do just that by continuing to expand vaccine distribution across our state, leveraging partnerships and our best resources to meet folks where they are in their own communities,” Evers said.
Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary for the state Department of Health Services, said in order to achieve the state’s goal of 80% herd immunity by the end of June, the state needs to receive 1.4 million doses of vaccine per month. Currently, Wisconsin is getting 467,000 doses per month.
“It is the vaccine numbers that are holding us back,” Willems Van Dijk said.
More than 213,000 people in the state had been vaccinated as of Friday, according to the state Department of Health Services. More than 518,000 Wisconsinites have tested positive for the coronavirus and more than 5,300 have died.
Willems Van Dijk said the mobile teams will consist of between 12 and 15 people who will carry out registrations, give vaccinations and monitor recipients. It’s expected that each team will have a capacity of about 70 to 140 vaccines per day, but that could ramp up.
The mobile program represents a collaboration between DHS and the Wisconsin National Guard, and will be led by local and tribal health departments. Guard members, along with pharmacy or nursing student volunteers through the University of Wisconsin System, will staff the mobile teams. UW System announced Friday it is expanding a $500 tuition credit for students who volunteer to administer vaccinations.
The mobile clinics will not be open to the general public at this time, but rather aim to expedite vaccinations for those who have been prioritized for doses.
“We’re using this as an opportunity to test that model so in the future when larger groups of the population and ultimately the whole public are available, they’ll be able to access any of the mobile clinics that will be provided in communities,” Willems Van Dijk said.
Currently, Wisconsin is in phase 1a of its vaccination plan, which focuses on immunizing frontline health care workers and residents of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. The first part of phase 1b — first responders, or police officers and non-paramedic firefighters (medics are in 1a) — begins Monday.
Other groups in phase 1b include people 70 and older, teachers, child care workers, prisoners and others who live in congregate settings such as group homes and mental health institutes, along with mink farmers, according to a plan by a state committee released this week for public comment. The plan is subject to approval by the State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee, which advises DHS.
“This pandemic has amplified health inequities throughout the state — we have seen how differences in opportunity, resources, and access to quality health care have exacerbated this public health crisis,” DHS Secretary Andrea Palm said. “That is why this program is an especially critical tool in Wisconsin’s vaccination rollout.”
Evers on Friday again called on Assembly Republicans to take up discussion on a COVID-19 legislative package passed by the Senate earlier this week.
“Let’s get this done and let’s start this legislative session on the right foot,” Evers said.
The Senate package, which represents a scaled-down version of legislation passed last week by Assembly Republicans, was passed on Tuesday. Later that day, Evers said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said in a statement he was “incredibly disappointed” in the Senate bill for not including Assembly GOP-authored measures that would exempt places of worship from COVID-19-related closures or prohibit local health officials from closing businesses for more than two weeks at a time.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who had previously stated that all measures in the Assembly package had support from Senate Republicans, also pushed back on the Senate bill in his response to Evers’ State of the State address Tuesday — accusing the Senate GOP of caving to Evers’ demands.
While several measures proposed by Assembly Republicans were stripped from the latest bill, it still contains items Evers’ has opposed, including liability protections for businesses, schools and health care providers.