Despite the Wisconsin vaccine rollout ranking near the top across the Midwest for COVID-19 vaccine distribution and administration, University of Wisconsin experts said people still need to be cautious — herd immunity is still not yet within arm’s reach.

Wisconsin started administering vaccines earlier this year, prioritizing people above 65 as well as people with chronic conditions. All individuals above the age of 16 will likely become eligible for the vaccine in May, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. It all sounds promising, but experts are staying vigilant at this stage, worried that people are getting back to pre-pandemic behaviors earlier than they should.

Malia Jones, an infectious disease expert at UW, runs an educational page on Facebook for information on COVID-19, called Dear Pandemic.

“We’re at a little bit of a fork in the road where we need to stay the course a little bit longer before we really can feel safe,” Jones said Wednesday during an online panel discussion centered around the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Wisconsin.

UW participated in under-review AstraZeneca vaccine trialThe University of Wisconsin participated in a trial to test AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine. Though AstraZeneca reported a high efficacy rate, Read…

Putting scarce resources into the right arms

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted certain communities more significantly than others, said Jonathan Temte, a UW expert in vaccine and immunization policy. By using COVID-19 mortality statistics to model life expectancy by demographic, researchers found that compared to a non-pandemic scenario, the pandemic reduced the general population’s life expectancy by one year. 

But breaking that statistic down by race, the study found Black men on average lost three years, and Black women 2.3 years off their life expectancy. COVID-19 exacerbated the existing life expectancy gap between Black people and white people as well.

These disparities, according to the CDC, can come because of systemic disparities in healthcare access, income, housing density and occupational differences — on average, more Black and Latinx workers have jobs in healthcare, transportation, grocery, factory and food processing industries, which have higher COVID-19 transmission rates, as well as a variety of other factors. 

Temte, who is also on the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that back in last May, the committee started talking about disparity when addressing immunization policy.

“I think it is the important thing here is science … will drive policy,” Temte said. “Unfortunately, that isn’t always how it works out.”

He added that vaccines tended to flow towards higher socioeconomic groups despite the committee’s efforts to try and circumvent that.

UW professor of computer science Michael Ferris has developed mathematical models to suggest allocating the supply of vaccines from the CDC to various vaccinators in the state.

“How to build measures of fairness within those models, and so those could include underserved populations … vulnerable populations,” Ferris said. “Those simple numbers about doses in arms isn’t enough. We have to strive to get to as many of the vaccines into the right arms as possible.”

Updated UW COVID-19 policies increase gathering capacitiesThe University of Wisconsin announced a change to the campus events policy which will now allow up to 50 people Read…

Vaccine hesitancy

Despite the growing accessibility of the vaccine, we are far from achieving herd immunity, or the state where enough people have been vaccinated in a population that the virus cannot transmit from person to person enough to find a susceptible host. 

Experts on the panel said the herd immunity threshold for COVID-19 that we would need to reach is 80%, given it is more transmissible than other viruses.

A major barrier to immunization is people who have no intention to get themselves vaccinated — they make up 25% of the population, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey.

Dr. Nasia Safdar, medical director of infection control at UW Hospital, said it is better to understand why they are hesitant and address them specifically.

“I would focus on the people that potentially are in a place where they’re open to hearing about the benefits of the vaccines,” she said.

Temte said his advisory committee created a vaccine safety subgroup, monitoring the vaccine’s effectiveness after it was released.

“We still don’t see any significant safety signal[s],” Temte said. “We’ve heard about the one in 500,000 severe allergic reactions … They have been recognized, and they have been treated. And people do well.”

While acknowledging that the available vaccines are safe and effective, Safdar said it does not always resonate with all groups in society.

“Historically, there are very good reasons to believe that has not been the case,” she said.

With more and more people getting the vaccines, Jones is concerned that people will go back to many of their pre-pandemic practices once they get vaccinated, even though many others have yet to receive a vaccine and could still get COVID-19. 

“I’m really excited to see people in my community with those vaccine selfies,” Jones said. “But it is going to take a little more time before we’re really there at the population level where we can abandon wearing masks in public [and] return to large gatherings.”