MILWAUKEE — It's been almost a year since the World Health Organization first declared COVID-19 a public health emergency.
The fight against the novel coronavirus hasn’t slowed down since then. But, of course, we now have some powerful weapons on our side: Two highly effective COVID-19 vaccines rolling out across the U.S., with more possibly on the way.
Here, we break down some of the latest vaccine news to keep you up to speed in Wisconsin.
What’s the status of COVID-19 vaccination in Wisconsin?
As of Friday, providers in Wisconsin have administered more than 476,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine, Department of Health Services Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk announced at a briefing.
More than 91,000 Wisconsinites have also gotten their second vaccine doses for full protection, Willems Van Dijk said. DHS data show that the number of shots given out each day has ramped up in recent weeks.
Health care workers and long-term care facilities in Phase 1A have been at the top of the priority list since the state’s rollout kicked off. Last week, police, firefighters, and corrections workers were added to the vaccine pool as the first chunk of Phase 1B. And as of Monday, any adults 65 and up have also become eligible to get their shots.
DHS officials say that the limiting factor on ramping up vaccinations is still the limited number of doses allocated from the federal government.
Wisconsin has been receiving around 70,000 shots per week from Pfizer and Moderna combined. Last week, that amounted to fewer than half the doses requested by vaccinators, Willems Van Dijk said.
“We want everyone who wants a vaccine in Wisconsin to get a vaccine, and in the future that will be a reality,” she said. “But with our current federal allocation, this is not a reality today, so we need to prioritize.”
What do we know about Phase 1B of the rollout?
Earlier this week, the DHS announced its finalized list of groups in Phase 1B.
With a tentative start date of March 1, education and childcare workers would be the next group eligible on the 1B list, according to the DHS guidelines.
Next up — and in order of priority — would be those in Medicaid long-term care programs, like IRIS and Family Care; some public-facing essential workers, like 911 operators and grocery store employees; non-frontline health care workers; and congregate living staff and residents, including inmates in Wisconsin’s jails and prisons.
The final DHS list largely follows the guidance from the State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee. A panel of SDMAC experts submitted their recommendations to the state last week after taking into account around 5,000 public comments from Wisconsinites.
The SDMAC vaccine subcommittee is now working to finalize its Phase 1C guidance — which may add people with underlying medical conditions and other groups of essential workers. Once Phase 1C is complete, vaccinations will open up to the general public.
How can I get my shot if I’m eligible?
So far, there’s no single tool to link eligible Wisconsinites with providers giving out vaccines.
DHS officials have said they’re working with Microsoft to develop an online tool for the state, similar to the COVID Connect tool used for testing registration.
In the meantime, they have encouraged residents to seek out information from their providers and local health departments. But they emphasized that patience is necessary: With a wide range of Wisconsinites now up for their vaccines, providers won’t be able to get the shots out to every eligible resident right away.
More than 700,000 Wisconsinites are prioritized based on age alone. As of Thursday, around 12% of residents in the 65-and-up category had gotten at least one dose, per DHS data.
Some providers — including Advocate Aurora Health, Veterans Affairs, ThedaCare, and Ascension Wisconsin — are reaching out to eligible patients directly for scheduling.
Here are some other local resources:
Milwaukee area residents can sign up through HealthyMKE to get connected with a vaccine provider when shots are available. Mayor Tom Barrett has said the county is working on a vaccine hotline for those who don’t have internet access.
Dane County residents who are 65+ and don’t have a local health care provider can fill out a survey or call 608-242-6328 to be matched with a vaccinator.
La Crosse County residents can fill out an online screening form or call 608-785-6240 to be connected with a vaccine provider.
Prevea Health patients can use an online scheduling tool to sign up for vaccination clinics.
Meijer patients can complete an online pre-registration form, text “COVID” to 75049, or call their local Meijer pharmacy to be notified about scheduling when shots are available.
SSM Health is offering a pre-registration form to notify patients when appointments are available.
The Fox Cities will be kicking off a series of mass vaccination clinics next week, starting with residents of Outagamie, Calumet, and Winnebago counties who are 65 and older. Eligible residents can register here.
UW Health is reaching out to patients 65 and older, but patients can also fill out a vaccine interest form to be contacted in case of same-day openings.
Bellin Health patients can schedule vaccine appointments online or call a COVID-19 hotline at 920-445-7313.
What do the mutated coronavirus variants mean for vaccines?
As of this week, all three of the main coronavirus variants from across the world have been identified in the U.S.
A variant first discovered in the U.K. has been reported in 28 states, including one case in Wisconsin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The variant first found in Brazil has also cropped up in a Minnesota patient, and two cases of the variant first discovered in South Africa have been reported in South Carolina.
Scientists are still working to figure out how the spread of these variants might affect COVID-19 vaccines’ effectiveness. Though viruses mutate constantly as they make copies of themselves, the three variants have racked up large numbers of mutations — some of them changing the key spike protein — which may help them evade our immune systems’ defenses.
Pfizer published preliminary results from a study this week, finding that their vaccines were only slightly less effective against key spike protein mutations. Moderna also released early results showing its shots were still “expected to be protective” against the new variants, although probably to a lesser degree than against the original virus.
Because the two mRNA vaccines had such high efficacy rates to begin with — around 95% — a small drop in that percentage would still offer a lot of protection. Both drugmakers are also working on possible booster shots that could help ramp up the protection against these new variants.
At a COVID-19 task force briefing Friday, infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci stressed that the variants required a “nimble” response to make sure our vaccines are keeping up. He said stopping the spread of COVID-19 is important to also stop more mutations from developing.
“It is an incentive to do what we’ve been saying all along: To vaccinate as many people as we can, as quickly as we possibly can,” Fauci said. “Mutations occur because the virus has a playing field, as it were, to mutate. If you stop that — stop the replication — viruses cannot mutate.”
What about the other vaccine candidates?
Two more companies released data from their vaccine trials this week.
Novavax published early results from its study in Britain, finding an 89% efficacy rate for its vaccine — although, like the other shots, it appeared less effective against viral variants. The Novavax version is what’s known as a protein subunit vaccine, which injects lab-crafted copies of the coronavirus’s spike protein to train the immune system.
Johnson & Johnson also released data from its clinical trials. The J&J shots were around 66% effective at preventing any disease, the study found, but around 85% effective at stopping severe illness.
That’s a lower rate than the Pfizer and Moderna shots — STAT News called the vaccine “a weapon but not a knockout punch” against the virus.
Still, having more vaccines available could offer a “very significant public health benefit,” DHS Chief Medical Officer Ryan Westergaard said at a briefing. And the J&J shots have some practical advantages: They only require one dose and are cheaper and easier to transport than fragile mRNA vaccines.
J&J is expected to file for FDA authorization in the coming weeks, while Novavax — whose U.S. trial is still in progress — will probably file for approval in the U.K. first.
Westergaard said that if new vaccines are given the green light, the DHS will work to figure out where they fit into the Badger State’s vaccine strategy.
“Provided that they are safe, that the data are solid, that the science convinces us that they do have net benefit, there will be a use for them,” he said.