walk-in COVID-19 vaccine clinic.jpg
Caption (optional): Walk-in COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic in Milwaukee, WI. Photo credit: Milwaukee VA Medical Center / Flickr.

While Wisconsin legislators fight the legality of mask mandates in court, the state struggles to maintain its high ranking in vaccine distribution.

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The US has passed the first year in its battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, one marked by social distancing, mask-wearing, and endless sacrifices. The apprentices in WhoWhatWhy’s Mentor-Apprentice Program documented the changes that continue to shape life in their hometowns, offering a unique snapshot of the spread of the coronavirus to date and the efforts made to overcome it. Here are their stories:

As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to decline in Wisconsin, the state’s ability to curb transmission could be in peril due to the difficulties of enforcing a mask mandate. The Republican-majority state Legislature voted on February 4 to rescind Gov. Tony Evers’s (D) health emergency order that required mask-wearing. In response, Evers issued a new mandate an hour later. 

A lawsuit is pending before the state Supreme Court after a prominent Republican donor asked the court to take “immediate action” and issue an injunction to temporarily block Evers’s mandate. Republicans said they will wait for the ruling before taking action against the order, which expires on March 20. 

This comes as new coronavirus variants that originated in Brazil, South Africa, and the United Kingdom are sweeping the nation. But the predicted surge has not yet hit Wisconsin, which continues to see precipitous falls in COVID-19 cases. The seven-day average of COVID-19 cases is now 580 — the lowest it’s been since early July 2020. In total, there have been 623,150 cases and 7,152 deaths recorded in the state thus far. Milwaukee County alone has a case rate of nine per 100,000 people and a 3 percent test positivity rate.

Based on these improvements, Milwaukee’s schools are allowed to reopen under a partial or hybrid learning scheme with social distancing and mask requirements for all in the building, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Milwaukee Public Schools announced a phased return to begin in April with the hopes that school staff will be vaccinated by then.

Currently, Wisconsin stands as 20th in the nation for vaccinations, a sharp drop from eighth place in February, with 21 percent of residents having received at least one dose. The state began inoculating educators on March 1 as part of Phase 1B, which also covers childcare workers, non-frontline health care workers, individuals in Medicaid long-term and at-home care programs, residents and staff of congregate living facilities, and other essential workers such as 911 operators, food bank workers, and grocery store personnel; this phase will cover one third of Wisconsin’s adult population. 

Those vaccinated in Phase 1A include nursing and long-term care residents and staff, frontline health care workers, and adults ages 65 and older, along with police, firefighters, and correctional officers, the remainder of whom have been rolled into the current stage of vaccinations. State health officials say this phase will be completed by the end of March.

Phase 1C will begin on March 29, covering an estimated 2 million residents aged 16 and older with certain preexisting conditions such as Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, cancer, and obesity. The general population of Wisconsin will likely become eligible for vaccination in May — the same time that President Joe Biden says the country will have enough vaccines for every adult.

Wisconsin initially scheduled Phase 1C to begin in mid-to-late-April but moved up the date after facing backlash for not vaccinating vulnerable individuals sooner, as highlighted by a question posed by the mother of a 19-year-old man with chronic lung disease at a CNN Town Hall with Biden last month. 

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