MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The COVID-19 vaccine would have to be available to the general public by mid-March, rather than June as state health officials estimate, under a bill from the Republican chairman of the Wisconsin Assembly Health Committee.
The measure, up for a public hearing Wednesday, grows out of criticism from Republican lawmakers about distribution of the vaccine from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration. Evers and the state’s health leaders have defended the rollout, saying how quickly people can be vaccinated is limited by the number of doses being sent by the federal government.
The bill is unlikely to become law. It has to pass the Senate and Assembly, and be signed by Evers, before taking effect.
Several other GOP-authored proposals have been introduced in the Senate that would likely also face an Evers veto. Those measures would prohibit employers and the government from mandating vaccinations; prevent health officials from closing churches; require schools to be open in person unless a two-thirds majority of the school board votes every two weeks to remain virtual; and forbid giving prison inmates priority for vaccinations.
The flood of coronavirus bills from Republicans is yet another sign of the schism between the Legislature and Evers as they try to find common ground on the pandemic. The Senate passed a limited coronavirus relief bill last week that Evers said he would sign, but the Assembly does not plan to take it up.
The legislative battle is quickly focusing on vaccine distribution.
Wisconsin current receives about 70,000 doses of vaccine a week but Evers has repeatedly called on the federal government to release more to the state. Evers in December estimated that vaccine won’t be available to the general population until June.
Evers and leaders at the state Department of Health Services have said it would be chaotic and frustrating to open up vaccines to the general public now given that the supply of vaccine isn’t near enough to meet demand. Instead, they have largely followed federal recommendations on who should be prioritized.
Starting Monday, everyone over age 65 will be eligible, the first broadening to members of the general public. But Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the state health department, said it will take about two months for enough vaccine to arrive to immunize all 700,000 people in that age group.
State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, Assembly Health Committee chairman, wants more people to be eligible faster.
His bill, introduced on Tuesday and scheduled for a hearing Wednesday, would require immediately prioritizing vaccination of everyone over age 60. The general public would be eligible no later than March 15. The bill further calls for the state to create a centralized, publicly available platform for people to see if they are eligible to be vaccinated and to schedule appointments.
Another Sanfelippo bill up for hearing would allow pharmacy students to administer the vaccine.,
Van Dijk on Tuesday said that it’s up to each person in the state to check with their health care providers, pharmacies and local public health clinics to see when they can be vaccinated. Some health providers may also proactively contact patients to let them know when they can get the vaccine, she said.
As of Tuesday, 248,185 doses of the vaccines had been administered in Wisconsin and 40,545 people had completed the two-shot regimen.
Dr. John Raymond, head of the Medical College of Wisconsin, said he thought Wisconsin was on track with its vaccine distribution despite Republican criticism. Raymond called the difference between Wisconsin’s vaccination rate (2.6%) and the national rate (3.2%) “immaterial.”
As vaccinations increase, health officials have continued to urge vigilance in protecting against the virus. One new option is at-home tests.
Wisconsin Department of Health Services spokeswoman Traci DeSalvo told Wisconsin Public Radio that more than 12,000 saliva-based test kits have been ordered and more than 1,600 have been returned as of last week. Tests are available through the DHS website, and results typically come back 48 to 72 hours later.