WAUWATOSA, Wis. — Being a good neighbor looks a little different in these pandemic days.
Instead of handing over a cup of sugar, providers in Wisconsin are sharing something much more valuable: Doses of life-saving COVID-19 vaccines.
“It was something that we knew others would have done for us,” says Dr. Timothy Marsho, a doctor at Tosa Pediatrics whose office helped other local providers get their shots.
The Badger State has gotten more than 240,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses into arms as of Tuesday, according to the Department of Health Services. At first, much of that work focused on hospital systems and nursing homes — easy access points for large groups of the highest-priority Wisconsinites.
Since then, though, the vaccine rollout has also moved onto other health care workers in Phase 1A, who work at smaller offices and private practices. Getting doses out to these groups has meant a more fragmented effort, leaving some practitioners' timing up to good luck and the help of their neighbors.
At Tosa Pediatrics, employees got the exciting call before New Year’s: They’d be receiving eight vials of the Pfizer vaccine to protect their staff.
But they soon realized that the allocation would be more than enough for their employees, Marsho says, especially after realizing that they could squeeze an extra dose out of each vial. So they started making calls of their own, ringing up other independent providers in the area to see who still needed their shots.
“It was a bit of a scramble,” Marsho says, as the office had to make sure they could use up the vaccines within their limited shelf life. The Pfizer shots are only stable for five days after being removed from ultracold storage, so once a state trooper came to their door with a little baggie full of life-saving doses, the race was on.
Tosa Dental was one of the lucky offices to get the call from Marsho’s team over the holidays, says Dr. Anne Allmann, who leads the practice. She says they were “elated” to accept some of the doses — to get some peace of mind while working in patients’ mouths all day, and also move one step closer to a more connected future.
“No one in our office has seen our smiles, or really anything aside from our eyeballs, for just about a year now,” Allmann says. “And, you know, it's challenging to have conversations that way, and to have interpersonal relationships when you're kind of bubble wrapped.”
In the end, the Tosa Pediatrics team was able to get all the shots into the arms of local Phase 1A providers — including fellow pediatricians, ophthalmologists, and a speech therapist’s office — within the time crunch.
They’re now working on following up with the second doses, which should be a smoother process now that they’ve had more time to prepare, Marsho says. And despite the hectic process, he says his office was excited to help vaccinate other providers, some of whom are the “frontline of the frontline” when it comes to coronavirus risk.
“It’s another layer of protection,” Marsho says. “Not just for the staff, but when the staff goes home, for their husbands, and wives, and spouses, and their kids — the people that they love.”
At Tosa Dental, though, the shots shared by Marsho’s office were only enough to vaccinate half the staff. The other half came from another local institution: Swan Serv-U Pharmacy in Wauwatosa.
“We have neighbors on both sides of us that are really taking care of the community and really being proactive,” Allmann says.
Randy Dawes, the pharmacy’s owner, says his team got their first round of vaccine doses last week, and were able to vaccinate 100 providers in the area — including the pharmacists themselves.
He says the team went “the old-school way” to meet vaccine needs in their area, calling up their closest 1A neighbors first and working their way out. Even without any public advertising, he says the appointment slots filled up fast.
“We are all in, in getting a vaccine to as many people as we can and who want it,” Dawes says. “My motto is: Vaccinate the world. Let’s get rid of the pandemic.”
Though Dawes says sending doses to smaller facilities like his pharmacy is a great step forward for the vaccine rollout, it’s also been “a double-edged sword.” He’s been mindful of managing burnout in his staff, as the vaccines have added a huge extra workload.
And that added work isn’t likely to go away anytime soon, as there are still lots of Wisconsinites eager to get their shots. Dawes says the hardest part has been turning away people who aren’t eligible yet, including their loyal customers who have been coming to the pharmacy for decades.
The vaccine program is set to open up a little bit in the coming weeks. Dawes says he’s started reaching out to police and firefighters in Wauwatosa, who are the first Phase 1B categories up for their shots as of Monday.
The practitioners have sympathy for those who are anxious to get their shots. Marsho says he feels very privileged to have gotten his shot already, and recalls how frustrating it was to see friends posting about getting vaccinated before Tosa Pediatrics received their doses — the feeling of asking, “What about me? What about me?”
“Now that we have the vaccine, every day is really precious,” Allmann adds. “You hate to see these numbers still going up, and transmission rates still being fairly high, when we know we have a preventive measure available.”
DHS officials have said that the main factor holding back Wisconsin’s rollout is the limited number of doses from the federal government. Still, as these local providers have experienced, matching that vaccine supply with demand has also been a major challenge.
Allmann and Marsho acknowledge that the state is doing its best to deal with a hugely complicated process — but hope that the logistics get ironed out quickly.
“Scientists have worked so hard to get two fabulous vaccines made, and safe,” Marsho says. “We need to make sure we get the distribution side of things right now so that we really get them in the arms of people — in safe ways, but also without delays and without waste.”
All three of the providers emphasize one central point: The vaccine is safe and effective.
Dawes and Marsho, who expect their teams to keep vaccinating as the later phases open up, are excited to continue getting shots into more Wisconsinites’ arms. And Allmann stresses the importance of people getting the vaccine when they have the chance — not only to protect themselves, but also for the good of their communities.
Even with the little bit of arm soreness after the shot, Allmann says the feeling afterward was more than worth it: “A sense of relief that we're starting to make some headway,” she says. “Shining some light on maybe getting our communities running again, and establishing hopefully some more togetherness for 2021.”