Public may have to wait until summer for vaccine

Prediction from health official comes as Covid-19 puts growing strain on local hospitals and their staffs

Late last month, the line for Covid-19 testing at the Ozaukee County Transit Center in Port Washington stretched down South Spring Street for as far as the eye could see. Press file photo
Ozaukee Press staff

Growing strain on hospitals and their staffs, Ozaukee County leaders were told last week that a vaccine against the virus could arrive in the area before the end of the year and be available to the general public by next summer.

“There might be a light at the end of the tunnel for all of us, although it’s unclear what our role will be” in distributing the vaccine, Washington Ozaukee Public Health Director Kirsten Johnson told members of the Washington Ozaukee Public Health Board last week.

Under a state emergency plan developed over a decade ago, Milwaukee will be the primary distribution point for the southeast region, with the first round of vaccinations going to frontline health care workers and first responders, followed by  at-risk populations and children, she said.  

When exactly it will reach those in Ozaukee County is unknown, but the vaccine likely won’t be available to the general public until late summer next year, she said.

“I don’t know what it’s going to look like,” she said.

Because there is a plan in place already, she said she expects the distribution of the vaccine to go more smoothly than testing for the virus has.

Each county or regional health department was on its own when it came to testing, Johnson said.

“It wasn’t until the National Guard was mobilized that a state strategy was in place,” she said.

The National Guard is currently testing on alternate Fridays and Saturdays at the Ozaukee County Transit Center, 410 S. Spring St., Port Washington.

Although details haven’t been finalized, another testing site, operated by a private company, will open at the Cedarburg Fairgrounds in mid-December.

The company will bill insurance companies, Medicare or Medicaid. The county will pay for people who have no insurance.

The mobile van will operate five days a week and be able to test 400 or more people each day, Johnson said. 

The National Guard site in Port will continue to operate until June, she said.

The national Centers for Disease Control recommends that people be tested for the virus if they’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive or if they are experiencing symptoms.

“I would argue that everyone has already been exposed,” Johnson said, answering a question about who should be tested.

Her department has hired 10 more contact tracers to follow up with those who test positive to try and determine who has been exposed.

But the number of those testing positive has risen so much, Johnson said, that tracers are focusing on schools and senior living facilities.

“We’re prioritizing children to help keep schools safe,” Johnson said. “And those over 65. We try to get their test results back in 24 hours.”

Johnson said she is meeting with all school superintendents once a week.

One person in her office has been assigned to work with first responders but her department has cut back on working with businesses, instead referring them to materials on the department website.

“It’s certainly an imperfect system but we’re doing the best we can,” she said.

Johnson said it “varies greatly” how sick people get from the virus, from having no symptoms to mild symptoms to hospitalization.

While those who have died from the disease or suffer more severe symptoms are older, two children younger than 10 have been hospitalized, she said.

The overall hospitalization rate is 3.29% of those testing positive, she said, with the caveat that “the way hospitalizations are recorded is incredibly inconsistent.”

Dr. Steven Zils, an emergency medicine physician at Aurora Health Center in Grafton and a medical advisor to the Health Board, said hospitals “are beyond capacity” and that hospitals are having to “create spaces where there were none” to treat patients.

“We’re in a very dire position,” he said.

He said hospital staff are being stretched to the limit with many working double shifts.

Aurora Public Affairs Coordinator Ben Hoekstra said there were 43 patients on Friday at Aurora Health Center in Grafton who had tested positive for Covid-19. He did not elaborate on the severity of their condition.

Statewide, Aurora had 501 patients in its facilties who have tested positive, he said.

  “Like hospitals and health systems across the country, we’re facing staffing and capacity challenges as the surge escalates and our inpatient census rises,” Hoekstra said. 

“Steps we’re taking to expand staffing include safely redeploying team members, reaching out to retired and student nurses and using agency nurses.”

Aurora is also scaling back elective inpatient admissions by 50% or more depending on local needs to accommodate the influx of Covid patients and free up staff, he said.

Johnson said she’s concerned there will be another spike in the next few weeks after the holidays.

“I’m concerned about hunting and hunting cabins and I’m incredibly concerned about Thanksgiving” and continuing through Christmas and New Year’s Eve, she said.

She noted there was a spike in positive tests following Halloween, especially among teenagers.

“I’m very concerned with the holidays and how this will play out,” she said.

Johnson also noted her department is seeing an economic cost to the pandemic.

The number of families enrolled in the state Women, Infants and Children supplement nutrition program has jumped in the last year, from 208 to 276  through October and the number of children enrolled has increased from 358 to 451.

“It is a pretty significant increase,” Johnson said. “In general our numbers are fairly steady. Small increases or decreases every year, but nothing significant. I would think this increase is directly related to the economic impact of Covid.”

Johnson said her department has been able to handle the increased case load by providing services remotely.

The department will be adding a new social worker to its staff of seven to handle the increase, she said.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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