Prisons prompt questions among health leaders tasked with determining who gets COVID-19 vaccine

Posted at 6:27 PM, Jan 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-08 19:30:25-05

MILWAUKEE — The order of who gets the COVID-19 vaccine in Wisconsin is not cut and dry. Our state’s vaccine advisory subcommittee continues to hash-out how the rollout should go.

So far in Wisconsin, and across the country, the vaccine rollout has been slower than promised. Demand still far surpasses supply.

As health care workers and nursing home staff and residents continue to get vaccinated in the first phase of vaccinations, state health leaders must decide the exact order of who should get it next. It’s a difficult task with no easy answers.

Wisconsin’s vaccine advisory subcommittee grappled with the decision Friday, of where people serving time in prison should fit in our state’s vaccine roll-out.

“You can’t ignore this population,” said Mary Muse, Director of Nursing at Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections. “I don’t want to wait until there’s a public health crisis in prisons, and there will be, to say we should have included them in the rollout earlier.”

“I have concerns around what public acceptability of vaccinating incarcerated people sooner than other high-risk populations will be,” said Ann Lewandowski, founder of Wisconsin Immunization Neighborhood. “I've received many offline comments. This issue might have to go to our political leaders to examine. We may include what we think as a recommendation, but it needs to go up through the chain of command.”

This discussion comes as Wisconsin corrections officials confirmed Friday that two additional inmates have died from coronavirus in our state’s prison system, bringing the total number of prisoner deaths to 25.

More than half of Wisconsin's roughly 20,000 prisoners have been infected with COVID-19.

“It’s a very high-risk population,” said Jonathan Temte, Chairman of Wisconsin Council on Immunization Practices, and Associate Dean of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

“Meanwhile, we have people in their 60’s with hypertension and diabetes still waiting? That’s a problem,” said Ed Belongia, the Director of the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Population Health at the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute.

The subcommittee ultimately agreed to recommend those who are currently incarcerated be in the third phase of vaccinations, along with adults over 65, people 16 and older with medical conditions, and some essential workers.

They’re recommending the second phase of vaccines - which comes next, after healthcare workers and nursing home staff and residents - be dedicated to frontline essential workers like first responders, teachers, and prison workers. Along with anyone over the age of 70.

John beard, a spokesperson for Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections says they’re following this debate closely.

“We’re going to continue to advocate for vaccinations of our essential workers and people in our care within the Department of Corrections,” Beard said. “We’ve initiated a vaccine task force within our own emergency operating system to ensure we’re fully prepared. As soon as we get the go-ahead, we will start vaccinating our workers and inmates.”

The recommendations that the vaccine advisory subcommittee made Friday will still have to go through rounds of public comment, and full committee vote, before a final decision is made.

To send feedback to the subcommittee on the vaccine rollout plan, email

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