Gov. Tony Evers blasted federal officials Friday for promising to release the remainder of their COVID-19 vaccine stockpile when it apparently was already exhausted, calling the pledge a “slap in the face.”
Evers has been taking pointed criticism from Republican legislators for weeks over the slow pace of Wisconsin's vaccine rollout. He told reporters on a conference call on Friday that Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Health Services Secretary Alex Azar told governors earlier this week that they planned to release whatever vaccines the federal government had been holding in reserve to speed inoculations.
But federal officials have since said the stockpile was exhausted when those promises were made and governors can't expect any windfall shipments. The news has escalated tensions and uncertainty about the sluggish pace of inoculations and who's responsible for it. Evers accused Pence and Azar of misleading governors.
“It was just plain old obfuscation,” Evers said. “I was told by the vice president, a couple days ago, and the secretary of health services that they're opening the gates, we're going to send you the remainder of what was stockpiled. I guess they may have been telling the truth because it's zero. But it led every other governor on the call to say OK, this is good, this is a step forward. We're going to have more vaccines. We have enough to do second dose plus move this forward. And it was a slap in the face to the people of Wisconsin and frankly I have no idea why they made that claim when they knew it wasn't happening. ”
A total of 213,056 people had been vaccinated in the state as of Friday, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services said. That's about 0.036% of the state's population.
Republican criticism of the slow rollout has grown louder over the last few weeks. On Thursday Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, said that the Evers administration's approach is a mess as officials try to figure out who deserves shots first.
Evers pushed back Friday, blaming the Trump administration for not supplying enough vaccine. State Department of Health Services Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said the state needs 1.4 million doses per month to get 80% of the population vaccinated by June. Right now it's getting only about 467,000 doses per month, she said.
“The cupboard’s bare in Washington, D.C.,” Evers said. “How in the world, I mean, it just boggles the mind. And then we have Rep. Sanfelippo talking about well, bureaucratic blah blah blah. That’s easy. You can just say that. But if we’re not getting the stuff, how can we vaccinate people?”
The governor said his administration is doing its best. The state is still in “phase 1A,” where only health care workers and nursing home residents and staff can be inoculated, but will begin inching into “phase 1B" on Monday by inoculating police and firefighters. On Tuesday, the state will begin using nine mobile teams operated by the Wisconsin National Guard and University of Wisconsin students.
Pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens plan to start vaccinated residents and staff in assisted living facilities on Jan. 25, the administration announced. The chains have been working to vaccinate nursing home residents and staff since Dec. 28; as of Friday, 261 of the state's 361 nursing homes had completed their first doses.
“It is the vaccine numbers that are holding us back,” Willems Van Dijk said. “That is why we are not in a position to open this up wide open.”
Evers also announced plans to issue a new emergency declaration and extend a statewide mask mandate for two more months. The current mandate is set to expire next week. The conservative-leaning state Supreme Court is weighing a challenge to that mandate, and word that Evers plans to continue the edict left Republicans outraged. Sen. Steve Nass promised to introduce a joint resolution to end the emergency declaration.
“The people of Wisconsin have been living with Covid-19 for almost a year now," Nass said in a statement. "They are more than capable of determining for themselves and their family what steps are appropriate in their daily lives without the heavy hand of Evers.”
The state health department reported 2,269 newly confirmed COVID-19 infections and 32 more deaths on Friday. The state has now seen 518,251 cases since the pandemic began and 5,322 deaths.