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Capital City Sunday: Vaccine allocation frustration, the cost of not passing COVID-19 relief

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MADISON (WKOW) -- The vaccine rollout in Wisconsin over recent weeks has been a story of efficiency; per CDC records, the state ranks among the top 15 for doses administered per 100,000 people despite ranking among the bottom 10 in doses received per 100,000.

However, those strides were cold comfort this past week. Vaccinators, including large health systems like UW Health and Mercyhealth, cancelled thousands of appointments after receiving considerably fewer doses than they expected. Some retail pharmacies received no doses at all.

SSM Health said it did not have to cancel any appointments but had to shift its allocation around to scale down first doses in order to keep all their second dose appointments.

"We realized we will not have enough for a large number of first doses," said Mo Kharbat, SSM's Regional VP of Pharmacy Services. "Thankfully, we did have enough for the appointments already scheduled but we realized we won't have enough for more so we had to close down the first dose schedules."

The Department of Health Services said it re-arranged some of this past week's allocation because it found some counties had been receiving a disproportionate amount of doses relative to their population.

Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said the biggest challenge was having more vaccinators come online -- and also asking for more doses -- while the amount coming into the state had been relatively static.

Willems Van Dijk said the state had taken in 89,000 doses while more than 500 vaccinators requested about 290,000 doses.

"What we saw happen was places are starting to get just a third or just a fourth of the vaccines they requested and in some cases, that's leading to appointments being canceled," said Madeline Heim, the health and science reporter for the Appleton Post-Crescent. "Which is what we saw this week in Madison and La Crosse."

Kharbat said he was hopeful future weeks would not have nearly as many cancelations. His reason for optimism was the state receiving two weeks' notice from the federal government regarding the amount of vaccine coming to Wisconsin.

Previously, health systems and pharmacists would find out either on Friday or over the weekend how many doses they'd get for the coming week.

"I think that's an improvement, that's a step in the right direction," Kharbat said. "Clearly, if we can know more three or more weeks in advance, that would be even better but we'll take it for now."

Both Kharbat and Heim said the possible emergency use approval for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could open things up considerably for both the state and its vaccinators.

Mainly, they said the introduction of a single-dose vaccine would put less strain on vaccinators who currently have to balance first and second dose amounts each week.

"Health systems need to hold back that second dose and that's making things tricky," Heim said. "You can't give a first dose to 500 people at the beginning of the month, and then you need to have those 500 to give them a second dose at the end of the month."

While the vaccine supply slowly ramps up, public health officials have continued advising people to wear masks around others, particularly indoors, and trying to keep their distance from people as much as possible.

UW Health officials said they believed those precautions were also squashing this flu season, saying they've only recorded one positive test after recording more than 1,100 in an especially active season last year.

It begs the question of how much we can expect masks and social distancing to remain familiar, if not nearly as ubiquitous, in future winters.

"I think what health officials would want is for them to be a staple," Heim said. "I have no problem if I'm sick in the future, and I have to go out, just throwing on a mask to go to the grocery store. I'm not sure if everyone would want to keep up those practices."

The Cost of Not Passing COVID-19 Relief

After a COVID-19 relief package went through multiple rounds of amendments, including Assembly Republicans adding provisions that banned employers from requiring vaccination and gave lawmakers more say over future federal relief spending, Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the bill.

One provision in the bill would have again suspended the one-week waiting period for people seeking unemployment benefits.

Without the bill, the waiting period went back into effect, which will now cost the state $1.3 million per week in federal unemployment money.

Lawmakers from both parties have expressed interest in taking up provisions in the bill as standalone items. However, the two parties are split over which bills should be brought forward.

"There were certainly two different tracts taken by the Assembly and the Senate," said Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg). "I definitely know the most important thing we need to get is liability reform."

Liability protection for businesses and schools, granting them immunity from virus-related lawsuits, was an addition from Senate Republicans Evers said he would accept prior to the Assembly added its provisions to the bill.

Democrats have not formally introduced bills but said they would support items suspending the UI waiting period and reimbursing out-of-network charges for COVID-19 treatment.

Stroebel said he wanted individual items to come up as their own bills as it would put both legislators and Evers on the record for where they stood on each issue.

"I think we need to send those things to him in separate bills and I think that will define who he is and who we are," Stroebel said.

Stroebel also took the lead on a measure that cleared the Joint Committee on Finance earlier this week.

The JFC, which serves as the state's budget committee, passed on party lines a motion to reallocate some school funding based on which districts spent the most hours in the classroom.

"When you're not in school, you don't have buses to run, you don't have janitors to pay for," Stroebel said. "You don't have a number of costs that come up."

The motion involves $65 million, which is the 10% of an overall federal relief award; it was the only portion of the money the legislature controlled.

Democrats and other critics of the move said it's unfair and unwise to factor the entire school year into the funding formula; some parts of the state had worse community spread than others, forcing schools to remain all-virtual. Such scenarios do not factor into the funding equation.

"There's some of that - looking back - and I understand that," Stroebel said. "But, really, this bill also looks forward. It gives through the end of this academic year."

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A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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