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Vaccine panel: Prisoners before the elderly

Empower Wisconsin | Jan. 14, 2021

Madison — Who gets the COVID-19 vaccine and when has become a major point of conversation and contention as the Evers administration appears overmatched in leading statewide vaccine distribution efforts.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) raised the point Tuesday in his response to Gov. Tony Evers’ State of the State Address. Vos noted that the Wisconsin Department of Health Services Vaccine Distribution Subcommittee has made some questionable determinations. 

“The subcommittee decided prisoners should get their vaccines before your 65-year-old grandmother,” he said.

He’s correct. 

On Tuesday, the subcommittee issued its recommendations that prisoners, child care workers, teachers and people 70 and over be the next in line for the vaccine.  

The State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee still needs to sign off on the plan. It differs from the Trump administration’s guidance, which says those 65 and older and adults with serious health problems should now receive the vaccine. 

Vos encouraged Wisconsinites to email the Evers’ public health team to let them know what they think of the recommendations, which are online at [email protected].

Ethical questions 

Prioritizing inmates over senior citizens raises more ethical questions about the state deciding who is more vulnerable or deserving of the life-saving vaccine. For some, it truly is a matter of life or death. To some, the deciders come across as life or death panels. 

“So, there’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners before it goes to the people who haven’t committed any crime,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, told Fox News last month. 

The American Medical Association has recommended inmates receive priority vaccines. 

“Recognizing that detention center and correctional workers, incarcerated people, and detained immigrants are at high risk for COVID-19, the new policy also makes clear that these individuals should be prioritized in receiving access to safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines in the initial phases of distribution,” the association stated.

But the AMA’s recommendations, like the Evers administration’s subcommittee advice, may come as little consolation to thousands of Wisconsinites who have watched their more vulnerable loved ones die from the virus. 

Wisconsin health officials reported 37 new deaths on Tuesday, pushing the total COVID-19-related death count to 5,248 since the pandemic struck in March. 

As of Monday, 25 prisoners had died from COVID-19. Cases in Wisconsin facilities have steadily fallen since November. As of Monday, there were 146 active cases in correctional facilities statewide, down from north of 2,000 in the COVID surge months of October and November, records show. 

Meanwhile, people 60 and over make up 92 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Wisconsin, according to DHS. 

‘Heartbreaking’ 

The bigger problem, critics of Evers’ vaccine rollout say, is the administration’s failure to act and to communicate its intentions. 

“It is heartbreaking to speak to elderly and vulnerable constituents and not be able to tell them when they can expect to receive this lifesaving vaccine,” said Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills)  “(Tuesday) night, Governor Evers delivered his state of the state and refused to given Wisconsinites any hope on when they will be vaccinated. I will keep asking until he takes this seriously.”

Darling said she sent a letter on Wednesday to DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm seeking answers on how the agency is handling vaccine eligibility and decision making, distribution and hubs, and ordering and supply. 

In his state of the state speech, Evers said he knows “folks are eager to put the virus in the past.”  

“I know so many are ready to get vaccinated and get back to life as we knew it, and we are working to distribute vaccine doses as quickly and as fairly as we can,” he said. 

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