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Wisconsin Spotlight | Jan. 19, 2021

MADISON — In his annual State of the State address last week, Gov. Tony Evers said his administration was “working to distribute the vaccine doses as quickly and as fairly as we can.”

Joshua Kuehn sees anything but efficiency and fairness in the administration’s rollout of the life-saving COVID-19 vaccines.

The 42-year-old West Allis man has had two open heart surgeries in the past six months to repair a rare aortic condition. He remains extremely vulnerable to COVID-19. Yet, he’s at the back of the line to receive the vaccine, and his local health department can’t tell him when he might expect to receive it.

“You talk about people who are high risk, I’m high risk. They cracked open my sternum. I spent weeks in cardiac rehab,” he said. “My entire family, when they come to my house they wear a mask out of concern for me. I would like to get vaccinated.”

Bureaucratic lines 

As of Monday, the State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee had yet to give final approval on Phase 1B, the next prioritized populations to receive the vaccine — although police and firefighters in that group were eligible to get inoculations on Monday. A subcommittee a week ago recommended police, firefighters, teachers, prisoners and residents 70 and over be included in Phase 1B.

The state Department of Health Services, however, remains stuck on Phase 1A, which began on Dec. 14. That phase includes front-line health care workers and residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

“One of the things we learned from the hearing we had (last week) is that some vaccinators have gone through the 1A group and want to move to 1B but DHS tells them they can’t, that they have to wait until everyone catches up,” said state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin), chairman of the Assembly Committee on Health.

The committee on Thursday heard from vaccine stakeholders who are frustrated with how the Evers administration has handled distribution to date.

What’s the holdup? 

Some aren’t waiting to cut through all the red tape to vaccinate. MercyHealth System informed the Janesville School District last week that it had doses available to vaccinate teachers. So, administrators have canceled classes this Friday so most of the district’s 1,600 employees can get the first of two rounds of vaccines.

“We said, ‘We can do this. We are willing. We are ready,’” district spokesman Patrick Gasper told Empower Wisconsin.

While some see it as line jumping, Sanfelippo said, “Anything we can do to get people vaccinated is a good thing.”

Particularly as 134,000 COVID-19 doses had yet to be administered as of Monday, according to a DHS database. To date, the federal government has allocated the state 607,650 doses. Of that, 373,100 have been shipped, and 239,102 doses have been administered. Less than 36,000 Wisconsin residents had received both doses of the vaccine as of Monday.

Evers blamed the Trump administration for promising to release a stockpile of COVID-19 vaccine, after reports surfaced the federal government — at that time — did not have more to give. He called it a “slap in the face.”

Vaccines delayed

But Sanfelippo and others have said the Evers administration has bungled the supply it has, with tens of thousands of doses waiting to be administered.

“They don’t have a plan. They’ve been dragging their feet. They’re still arguing amongst themselves who should be in the next group when we already have federal government guidance. Why do we have to recreate the wheel,” Sanfelippo said. Last week, the CDC expanded coronavirus vaccine eligibility to everyone 65 and older, as well as to those with comorbid conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.

While Evers and his life and death panel delay, the elderly and the infirm are forced to wait without answers.

It’s very personal for Joshua Kuehn, and not just because of his own health struggles. His grandmother, who had lung cancer, was diagnosed with COVID-19 nearly two months ago — just before the rollout of the vaccines. She died earlier this month.

“It’s sad. I can’t even call my local health office and find out when (I can get the vaccination),” he said. “They have no idea because they’ve received no communication from Milwaukee County because Milwaukee County has received no communication from the state.”

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