Wisconsin’s Vaccine Rollout Is Proving To Be Among the Nation’s Best

There's a whole lot of good vaccine news right now, and Wisconsin is getting shots into arms as fast as any state in the country.

The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

At a recently-opened vaccination clinic at UW-Oshkosh, Tony Evers signs a bill allowing pharmacy technicians and students to administer the vaccine, another step forward in the state’s strong vaccination rollout. Photo via Governor Tony Evers on Facebook.

We’ve reached Month 12 of the pandemic in Wisconsin. A full year of living with the coronavirus has tested us all in ways we could not have imagined. 

But as warm weather days signify an end to a particularly trying stretch of this year’s long, cold, snowy winter, it feels as if for the first time in a long time, there are legitimate reasons to be hopeful for light at the end of covid’s long tunnel.

The vaccines work. They really work. They’re working so well, in fact, that in nursing homes, new cases have fallen by 80 percent and deaths are down 65 percent in less than two months. Hospitalization rates nationally are also as low as they’ve been since last fall. Studies are showing that the vaccine is dramatically reducing transmission. The U.S. just hit a single-day record for vaccinations. The third vaccine, Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot, was just approved by the FDA. We might be underselling how much good news there is with vaccinations right now. Some extremely good things are happening. 

One of those places where extremely good things are happening is the state of Wisconsin, where the vaccination rollout is now proving to be a huge success. 

Wisconsin currently ranks third in the nation for vaccine distribution. 

The state has used 89.5% of its supply, and is behind only North Dakota and New Mexico (both significantly less populous states), and is now ahead of West Virginia (a state heralded as an early vaccination success story), firmly in the top five, according to Bloomberg’s vaccination tracker (as of Saturday, Feb. 27). This is an extremely good thing. 

Wisconsin also ranks fairly high for the percentage of the state’s population to have received one shot (16.1%, 17th) and two shots (8.1%, 13th). The state has administered nearly 1.5 million doses of the covid vaccine, at a rate of about 33,000 per day. If anything, the issue in Wisconsin is a lack of supply. Distribution is moving quickly.

The state Department of Health Services has placed particular emphasis on vaccinating people over 65 years of age. So far, so good: More than half of those over 65 have already received their first shot — that’s more than 536,000 people, and counting — and more than 20% have now completed the series. In all, more than 469,000 Wisconsinites are now fully vaccinated.  

Gov. Tony Evers is doing a tremendous job with vaccine rollout. He and his administration and the Department of Health Services deserve praise and credit for their success with this crucial task at this time of crisis. Vaccine distribution is as important as any task any of our leaders have faced during this pandemic, and he is now meeting the moment. 

Big picture success, however, does not mean every aspect of the vaccination rollout has been without flaw. Once Wisconsin ramped up its efforts, it got going in a real hurry, but the governor’s early concerns over supply slowed what now appears to have been an overly cautious initial process. Evers’ critics from the other side of the aisle were lining up against him on the issue in January, but that criticism has vanished entirely as Wisconsin rocketed up the rankings in February. 

A major problem that does remain is that — as is the case with just about everything in Wisconsin — the larger results have been inequitable. White Wisconsinites are receiving vaccinations at a much higher rate than Black, Asian, Indigenous or Hispanic populations in the state, and there are troubling access problems within the vaccination system. There are some persistent problems within health care in this, one of the most unequal states in the nation. We saw that as communities of color experienced a disproportionate impact from the coronavirus, and we’re seeing it again with vaccine administration. These pre-covid problems certainly have not disappeared, and will require larger systemic change to be adequately addressed. 

Advocates for people with disabilities, too, have said that there are real problems in making sure this vulnerable population is properly prioritized for vaccination. We need to make sure people currently incarcerated are being vaccinated, as half of the state’s prison population has been infected with covid. And restaurant industry workers should absolutely be included in the next group for vaccine eligibility. 

But as more and more supply reaches the state and those problems continue to be identified, hopefully those issues will be addressed and prioritized to a greater degree. 

One encouraging sign on that front is that next week, teachers and child care workers will become eligible for the vaccine, and DHS is planning to prioritize districts where there is a high percentage of students of color, and where a high percentage of students are eligible for free and reduced lunches. And once teachers are vaccinated, the conversation around in-person classes changes dramatically.

That next phase, along with rollout of new state-run vaccination clinics and the pending arrival of a federally-run vaccination site in Milwaukee, could help push Wisconsin’s covid curve down even further.

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Covid case rates are as low as they’ve been since summer. The 7-day average of confirmed positive cases dropped to 604 on Tuesday. That number has not been below 600 since July 9. 

The 7-day average of deaths per day is still far too high. We are still losing nearly 20 people to this terrible virus every day. More than 500 Wisconsinites died from covid-19 in February alone, and more than 1,500 people in our state have died from coronavirus so far in 2021. The depth of tragedy that continues during this ongoing pandemic after a full year is difficult to truly process. 

But hope is on the horizon. Even as we’re still learning what our day-to-day life might look like over the next few months as the rollout continues, the impact these vaccines will have to stand in the way of the death and suffering so many have experienced is nothing short of a historic achievement. Countless lives will be saved.

The vaccine is our ticket out of this mess, and Wisconsin is now getting shots into arms as fast as any state in the country. The light at the end of the tunnel is growing brighter. After a long, difficult year, that is something worth celebrating. 


Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.


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