Milwaukee Officials Frustrated with ‘Trickle’ of Vaccine

Without a greater supply from manufacturers and the federal government, there’s concern “herd immunity” could be delayed until summer.

Frustration is mounting over the slow pace of the public rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in Milwaukee.

Local health experts and political leaders on Thursday urged residents to have patience with the process.

“Our goal is to get as many shots into as many arms as safely and as efficiently as possible,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said in a virtual session with reporters. “Some of this is dependent on the supply. I think it’s important to keep this in perspective.”

The state has been receiving about 70,000 vaccine doses per week from the federal government, Barrett noted.

Setting priorities for the most vulnerable residents is crucial, he stressed.

“I understand that there’s a sense of urgency to get the vaccination, as well as the eagerness from the public,” Barrett said. “Everybody wants to get back a sense of normalcy.”

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Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley admitted that confusion has reigned over the COVID-19 vaccination process.

“It’s difficult to know if you are eligible, if the vaccine is available and where you can actually receive it,” he said.

A phased process of vaccine distribution will remain in place.

“There’s a big difference between vaccine eligibility and availability,” he said. “Know that your turn is coming. Just because you are eligible it does not mean that the vaccine is going to be available to you.”

As of this week, vaccines have been distributed to 33,930 individuals so far in Milwaukee County, according to Dr. Ben Weston, the county’s emergency management medical director.

“We would all like to see vaccines come in more rapidly,” Weston said. “The sooner we can get vaccine into the arms of our community, the sooner we can get to the end of the pandemic.”

Vaccines continue to be distributed to the 1A group, which includes health care workers and first responders such as firefighters, emergency medical service providers and police officers.

The State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee met this week to consider public comments about who should be included for vaccination in the 1B group. A decision could be made next week, Weston said.

Eric Gutbrod, general manager of Draft & Vessel bar in Shorewood and Wauwatosa, sent a letter to Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday urging that hospitality workers be included in the 1B group. Gutbrod cited the economic impact of bars, restaurants, coffeeshops, theaters and music venues, noting that such businesses, along with the tourism sector, employ 8% of the state’s workforce. 

“We have been wearing masks the entire time, we’ve limited capacity or even eliminated in person service entirely,” Gutbrod wrote. “We’ve gone above and beyond with additional sanitation, which has a cost, and our pocketbooks have been severely impacted. Now, leading up to summer, we should absolutely begin to be prioritized for vaccinations.”

Residents 65 and older will become eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine next week, the state Department of Health Services announced earlier this week.

“Those age 65 and older is a huge population, over 130,000 in Milwaukee County,” Weston said.

He noted that one year ago today the first domestic case of COVID-19 was recognized in Seattle in a young man who had traveled from Wuhan, China.

“In that year, we’ve certainly seen life change in ways none of us could have imagined,” Weston said. “Without a doubt we are in a different place now than we were in just a few months ago. We now have an end in sight. A vaccine that promises a return to normal life.”

But to reach “herd immunity” in the community, upwards of 80% of the population needs to be vaccinated, Weston said. This requires not only having an adequate supply of vaccine on hand but the infrastructure to deliver it and the willingness of the broader population to receive it.

Darren Rausch, director of Greenfield’s Health Department, said public health officials are feeling the same level of frustration with the pace of vaccine distribution as the general public.

He described the 70,000 doses of the vaccine received by the state each week as a “bit of trickle.”

“We need five times that to vaccinate 80% of our population by summer,” he said. “The slow release of vaccine to Wisconsin and ultimately to our local communities is due to the slow release and the limited availability from manufacturers and the federal government.”

Rausch said it’s unlikely that additional doses of the vaccine above the current level will be released to the state in the coming weeks.

“We need appropriate and adequate supply of vaccine,” said Marlaina Jackson, Milwaukee’s interim health commissioner. “This is somewhat out of the control of local health departments. As we move forward, we know there are supply challenges.”

Residents are urged to go to HealthyMKE.com for the up-to-date information on COVID-19 vaccine distribution in the community.

Chris Drosner contributed to this report.

 

 

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.