Wisconsin is preparing to receive and distribute COVID-19 vaccines for up to 700,000 health care workers and high-risk residents, potentially beginning as early as the end of the year, state health officials said Tuesday, Nov. 17.

The timing and number of first doses are tentative, pending applications and production schedules from manufacturers, two of which said this month that their vaccine candidates were at least 90% effective based on preliminary data. The anticipated protection comes as the state reported a record 92 COVID-19 deaths Tuesday and had a record 2,277 patients hospitalized with the coronavirus.

The state, which has about 5.8 million people, stands to get 1.77% of whatever amount of vaccine is initially available, said Stephanie Schauer, immunization program manager for the state Department of Health Services. Pfizer and Moderna, which said they could seek federal approval for their candidates this month, each anticipate having enough doses ready for about 20 million people by the end of the year.

A combined supply for 40 million would mean enough vaccine for roughly 700,000 people in Wisconsin, with health care workers, other essential workers and people 65 or older or with underlying medical conditions getting first dibs, Schauer said. Other people may be able to get immunized by spring, and other vaccines are in development.

Vaccine distribution will be a complex effort, with multiple vaccines, some requiring two doses with varying time intervals, and some needing ultra-cold storage in freezers. With the two-dose vaccines, including Pfizer's and Moderna's, people must get both doses of the same one a few weeks apart.

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The Wisconsin Immunization Registry is being augmented to help people track which vaccine they receive and when they'll need a second shot. The state has received $3.1 million for the vaccine distribution effort but will need more than that, with the exact amount being estimated, said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the state health department.

"This COVID-19 vaccination planning and dissemination is even more complicated than we had ever imagined," Willems Van Dijk said. "It will be the most extraordinary public health intervention our state has ever undertaken."

The state started enrolling pharmacies, health care providers, health departments, mass vaccination sites and other entities as providers of the vaccine early this month.

According to the state's COVID-19 Vaccination Plan, health care workers will get top priority for initial doses, with their employers likely delivering the shots. A "phase 1B" will include residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, along with essential workers such as first responders and people 65 or older. Pharmacies, such as CVS and Walgreen's, likely will provide some of those injections.

"For phase 1, the state is exploring the ability to provide some mass vaccination capacity to address gaps during this phase," the plan says.

"Critical populations," including minorities, homeless people, people with disabilities and college students, may also get priority. Schauer said the exact distribution will depend on recommendations, once vaccines are approved, from a committee advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Once the vaccine is more plentiful, the general public likely will get it at medical clinics or community sites, similar to how COVID-19 testing has been provided, Willems Van Dijk said. Shots are expected to be free.

"It's going to take a number of months for us to get everyone in the state who desires to have this vaccine vaccinated," she said. "We all need to continue to wear our masks, keep socially distanced, keep our gatherings small, wash our hands and definitely stay home if you're sick and get tested."

Schauer said it's not clear what proportion of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to have herd immunity that would bring COVID-19 in check.

"We're still learning about what is that magic number," but it could be about 80%, she said.


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