A healthcare worker holds a Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine at Memorial Healthcare System, in Miramar, Florida on December 14, 2020. - The United States kicked off a mass vaccination drive Monday hoping to turn the tide on the world's biggest coronavirus outbreak, as the country's death toll neared a staggering 300,000. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)
A healthcare worker holds a Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine at Memorial Healthcare System, in Miramar, Florida on December 14, 2020. - The United States kicked off a mass vaccination drive Monday hoping to turn the tide on the world's biggest coronavirus outbreak, as the country's death toll neared a staggering 300,000. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

Effort to vaccinate more people more quickly hindered by supply, DHS says.

Gov. Tony Evers and the state Department of Health Services (DHS) are calling for more COVID-19 vaccines from the federal government amid ongoing criticism that vaccinations protecting against the contagious, deadly virus aren’t happening fast enough. 

Since beginning vaccinations against the virus on Dec. 14 in Wisconsin, the number of people receiving the vaccine has grown above 150,000, DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said during a news conference Monday. But efforts to increase how many can access the medicine are being hindered by a lack of vaccine sent to the state, she said. 

“The biggest challenge is we need more vaccine,” Van Dijk said when asked why vaccination numbers have been lower than initially projected. 

A lack of vaccine, she said, is hindering not only the ability to protect state residents from the virus, she said, but is delaying the expansion of vaccinations to other groups who need it. Healthcare workers and long-term care residents and staff have been prioritized to receive the vaccine that will be rolled out to other groups deemed less vulnerable in upcoming months.

Wisconsin public health officials have been criticized for not immunizing more people more rapidly. The state ranks 10th of 12 Midwest states in terms of getting a first dose of the vaccine to its residents, based on population, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures. 

The state also ranks toward the bottom nationally in terms of how much vaccine the federal government has sent to the state, based again on population. Some have criticized the state for keeping too much of the vaccine on hand instead of getting it out to vaccination sites sooner at a time when the medicine is needed to prevent illnesses and save lives. 

Van Dijk acknowledged those criticisms but said they don’t take into account the fact that at any given time, about one-third of vaccination supply is in storage awaiting shipment around the state. In addition, she said, about one-third is set aside for nursing homes and assisted living facilities. 

“It looks like we have a lot of supply just sitting there,” she said, but in reality those vaccines are either waiting to be sent out or have been set aside for long-term care sites.

Besides a lack of enough vaccine, Van Dijk said other challenges to getting it to more people faster include the fact that the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines, especially the Pfizer one, must be kept at especially cold temperatures and moving them from a central site to more remote ones “is a very complicated process.” 

DHS reported just 1,456 new COVID-19 cases Monday, a day when numbers typically are low. Five new deaths were reported, bringing that number to 5,162. A total of 508,346 positive cases have been reported. 

While some people are calling for the vaccine to be made available to a wider population sooner, Van Dijk rejected that idea. Doing so without enough supply, she said, would only lead to longer waits for more people and “create mass chaos.” 

In a news release issued Monday, Evers reiterated the need for more COVID-19 vaccine to boost efforts to vaccinate more Wisconsin residents. The governor repeatedly has sought more of the medicine from the federal government, which has fallen far behind its previously stated goals regarding vaccinations nationwide. 

Last week Evers joined governors of other Midwestern states in calling for more vaccines. Likewise, DHS officials have asked federal officials for more doses and better predictions for how much of the medicine the state will receive. 

DHS is receiving about 70,000 vaccine weekly doses currently, Van Dijk said, and would need about 125,000 to meet the vaccination goal of President-elect Joe Biden.

“I think that would be a good next step,” she said of the 125,000 figure.  

The state will soon add police and firefighters to those receiving the vaccine, Van Dijk said. But before that can happen, the first wave of those receiving the vaccines, commonly referred to as Group 1A, should get the medicine, she said, noting the state has grown its system in recent weeks to increase vaccinations. 

“We stand ready to grow (that system) further,” Van Dijk said. “But we cannot do that without more vaccine.”

So far 151,518 doses of the vaccine have been administered statewide. But that is less than one-third of the estimated 550,000 in Wisconsin who qualify for 1A and the millions more who will qualify for the vaccine later this year. 

County health officers in Wisconsin told UpNorthNews the vaccination clinics their departments are putting on are filling quickly with people classified as Phase 1A seeking the vaccine. In Chippewa County, officials administered all 200 vaccines last week they had received and the 100 slots for another clinic planned for Wednesday were nearly filled as of Monday afternoon.   

“We are getting many requests from people who want to get this vaccine,” county Health Department Director Angela Weideman said, noting officials at assisted living facilities are seeking vaccines as soon as possible at those sites. “There is a lot of demand out there, and it would be good if we can grow the vaccination effort soon to meet that need.”