Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) Interim Secretary Karen Timberlake joined the Wisconsin Hospital Association (WHA) board of directors meeting on Feb. 18 to provide an update on the state’s COVID-19 response and address questions from WHA members about Wisconsin’s vaccination rollout. WHA leaders also recapped the association’s 2020 outcomes and laid the groundwork for a productive 2021 with ambitious goals aimed at maximizing hospital and health system success.
Entering a New Phase
Interim Secretary Timberlake provided a progress update on Wisconsin’s vaccine rollout, which continues to be challenged by demand that far outstrips supply. The good news is that vaccines are now getting into the arms of Wisconsinites at a much faster pace than a month ago. While it took 48 days to administer the first 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine in Wisconsin, it took only 18 days to complete the next 500,000 injections.
Wisconsin is also benefitting from a slow, but steady increase in vaccine supply from the federal government. However, if the supply of vaccine coming into the state matched the existing capacity of Wisconsin vaccinators to deliver shots, we would be vaccinating our citizens four times faster than the current rate, Timberlake noted. This gap between capacity and vaccine supply means many hospitals and health systems are receiving far fewer doses than they are requesting, limiting vaccine appointment scheduling and in some cases forcing mass cancellations.
Still, Timberlake stressed the need to continue to “diversify the front door” to maintain a strong bullpen of vaccinators who are ready and able to deliver shots safely, efficiently and equitably as currently approved manufacturers ramp up production and new vaccines enter the market. Any vaccinators added to DHS’s database at this point likely will not receive vaccine until more supply is made available to the state.
Managing expectations of both vaccinators and the public is and will continue to be critically important, said both Timberlake and WHA members during the dialogue, especially as new eligible populations are added to Wisconsin’s vaccination program on March 1. This new phase will include education and childcare, individuals enrolled in Medicaid long-term care programs, some public-facing essential workers, non-frontline health care essential personnel, and facility staff and residents in congregate living settings.
Anticipating concerns by WHA board members about moving onto new populations while a significant number of Wisconsinites aged 65 and older remain unvaccinated, Timberlake explained that DHS’s vaccination strategy involves adding new eligible populations when first doses for a currently eligible population reach 50%. She also stressed that DHS’s “units of measure” for its strategy are counties, which is likely different than how hospitals look at their populations. She noted that progress toward vaccinating the 65+ population varies across the state, with some counties reaching 70% of this eligible group and others registering only 30%.
Opening vaccine eligibility to new populations will raise expectations that will likely increase pressure on Wisconsin hospitals to administer vaccines faster than supply allows, WHA leaders noted. Timberlake stated that the over-65 population should continue to be prioritized. DHS’s messaging on this next phase will emphasize that while the window for these new populations will open on March 1, it may be late-March or even April before newly eligibles are able to get their first dose. With respect to educators, DHS is considering setting aside doses for this group so that the prioritization of this population does not fall on health care providers. Vaccinators will be informed about details of this strategy when it is finalized.
Timberlake assured WHA board members that she heard their concerns and that managing the general public’s expectations was the department’s responsibility, and that this would begin right away. “I can’t promise you that it’s not going to be a little bumpy…, but we understand the need to get out ahead of it and try to set expectations at the state level,” she said. “So, we are committed to doing that.”
In addition to continuing to maintain an open dialogue with DHS to share hospital and health system feedback on the state’s vaccination strategy, WHA President and CEO Eric Borgerding said WHA would seek opportunities through earned and owned media to draw attention to the time, energy and resources hospitals and health systems invested in building up their vaccination capacity, which remains frustratingly underutilized due to a shortage of supply from the federal government. Moving quickly on this strategy, just two days after the board meeting WHA drafted and placed an op-ed
in the Wisconsin State Journal
highlighting the readiness of Wisconsin hospitals and health systems to administer far more vaccines than they are currently receiving and calling for increased urgency from those in charge of vaccine production and distribution.
WHA 2020 COVID Response Lays Groundwork for Ambitious Advocacy Goals in 2021
“COVID in 2020 caused WHA to redefine and expand what our advocacy role means,” said Borgerding in his report to the board. “While maintaining an effective and robust lobbying and public policy-focused advocacy role, we’re now going much beyond that.”
Among the major accomplishments Borgerding highlighted over the past year were the association’s routing of COVID-19 relief to Wisconsin hospitals, including $1.1 billion in CARES Act Provider Relief Funds; $40 million in Wisconsin state grants, and $3.5 million in Assistant Secretary for Preparedness Response (ASPR) funding. This was critical help given the massive drops in patient utilization and revenue hospitals experienced in the spring and summer of 2020, and still are experiencing today. Continuation of the regulatory relief that was granted to hospitals to deal with the pandemic will be a focus of WHA’s advocacy work going forward. WHA has also played and will continue to play the lead role, Borgerding noted, in lobbying elected officials to enact sensible COVID legislation, a point WHA Senior Vice President of Government Relations Kyle O’Brien expanded upon in his report.
WHA also significantly ramped up its communications capabilities and efforts in 2020, advocating for hospitals through high-profile paid media and public relations campaigns focused on hospital safety and fighting “COVID stigma,” as well as COVID-prevention measures needed to stop virus spread. “We have not shirked any media opportunity that gives us the chance to message to the public on your behalf,” said Borgerding.
WHA’s authority on COVID and its impact on Wisconsin was further underscored in 2020 by the Wisconsin Hospital Association Information Center’s (WHAIC’s) online data dashboard related to daily COVID-19 hospitalizations and equipment capacity, which is nearing 1 million views to date.
Ongoing Legislative Priorities
In addition to stressing continued work on long-term policy advocacy and COVID-related legislative priorities, WHA Senior Vice President of Government Relations Kyle O’Brien provided an overview of overview of Governor Evers’ budget bill
. O’Brien also outlined WHA’s involvement in Attorney General Josh Kaul’s behavioral health coalition
. WHA Senior Vice President of Public Policy Joanne Alig provided an update on the WHA Public Policy Council Subcommittee on Public Health, formed as a result of challenges and opportunities identified for better coordination of efforts related to the state’s pandemic response. WHA Director of Federal and State Relations Jon Hoelter provided an update on federal health care legislation, including a summary of a package that passed in December that included more funding for COVID testing, contact tracing and vaccine distribution and increased flexibility for spending CARES Act funding. Hoelter also provided an update on the Biden administration’s priorities as they relate to fighting COVID and summarized the current $1.9 trillion COVID relief package before Congress.