The city of Milwaukee will begin providing COVID-19 vaccinations for residents age 65 and older starting Feb. 1, although short supplies won’t allow for immediate widespread distribution.
“Understanding that we do have supply issues at this time, we will be reserving Monday as our day to vaccinate our senior population,” Interim Milwaukee Health Commissioner Marlaina Jackson said in a virtual session with reporters on Tuesday.
Public COVID-19 vaccinations will be take place at the Wisconsin Center in Downtown Milwaukee, which has been set up as the city’s central distribution site. The city has been contacting people who have already registered for the vaccine to secure a spot on the initial schedule, Jackson said. Registration is available here.
The city is also finalizing a new electronic scheduling system that will allow for the scheduling of larger numbers of people, she added. A hotline is also being set up for those without internet access. The goal is to have both up and running some time next week, Jackson said.
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The city continues to struggle with the limited supply of vaccine doses, a scenario that now becomes more complicated as it works to add those age 65 and older to the pool of health care workers and first responders that are already receiving the vaccine, she said.
COVID Testing Lags
Although considerable public attention is being paid to vaccinations, Barrett continued to lament the Milwaukee area’s declining COVID-19 testing numbers. On Monday, about 900 people received COVID-19 tests at American Family Field, which is set up to administer about 2,000 tests per day. Another 279 people received tests at the Milwaukee Health Department’s Northwest Health Center and 157 at the Southside Health Center.
“Each of the locations can certainly handle more people,” Barrett said.
All three testing locations closed on Tuesday because of the snowstorm.
Meanwhile, the city is “anxiously awaiting a larger supply” of vaccines, Barrett added. “That’s why we scaled up the Wisconsin Center vaccination site. We are ready to handle more people,” he said. “A huge part of the challenge is the supply issue.”
He noted that the state’s population of residents 65 or older is about 700,000, while the vaccine allotment this week for all of Wisconsin is 70,000. “That clearly creates a demand and supply problem that will continue until the number of doses coming into the state increases and increases rather dramatically,” Barrett said.
Snow also forced the closure of the Wisconsin Center on Tuesday, which resulted in the cancellation of 300 vaccine appointments. Those who didn’t receive the vaccine as planned will have their appointments rescheduled for later in the week.
New Virus Strains
Milwaukee County’s Emergency Management Medical Director Ben Weston addressed what he referred to as “very real concerns” about emerging coronavirus strains.
“The virus that causes COVID, like all viruses, undergoes constant minor mutations as it replicates in our bodies,” Weston explained. “Most of those mutations make no difference as to how the virus works. However, there have been three strains from around the world that have resulted from a series of mutations that have become noticed, particularly due to their increased dissemination and their heightened ability to infect.”
Health officials are keeping their eyes on coronavirus variants that have emerged from the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa. Weston described the strains as “more contagious.”
Of added concern is that variants from Brazil and South Africa appear to be able to avoid the antibodies that have been created from previous COVID infections. “This means that people who have been infected with COVID in the past may be prone to reinfection from these variants,” Weston said.
The biggest question calling out for an answer is whether the COVID-19 vaccine will be effective against these variants. “In the case of the UK variant, there is no reason to believe that it would not be effective,” Weston said. “Although it is more transmissible, that variant is still neutralized by the antibodies developed by infection, as well vaccination.” Questions remain around the Brazil and South Africa variants, he added.
The current vaccines are likely to still be effective against the Brazil and South Africa strains, but likely not at the extremely high level of effectiveness against the existing strain of COVID, Weston said.
The UK variant appears to be somewhat widespread in the United States, while the first cased tied to the Brazil variant was reported on Monday in Minnesota, he noted. The South Africa strain has yet to be detected in the United States.
Increased transmission rates tied to the variants are raising concerns about another widespread wave of infections, Weston said.
“This is absolutely a major worry with the new variants,” he said. “When you see the increased transmissibility, we worry, much like what happened in the UK, that our case rates, our hospitalization rates and our death rates could rise dramatically.”