Wisconsin Senate grappling with COVID-19 vaccine questions

Can employers force employees to get vaccinated? Should the state prioritize vaccine distribution to inmates? The Wisconsin Senate is wrestling with issues like those and others.

Prisons have been hotspots for COVID-19; the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) reports 10,000 cases of people in their care and 25 deaths.

Wisconsin's vaccine advisory subcommittee recommends including prisoners in the next phase of vaccine prioritization -- Phase 1b.

"The cost of trying to provide medical care for so many individuals that are invected with COVID-19, is extremely, extremely costly thing to do," said State Sen. LaTonya Johnson. "It’s better to side on the side of caution to stop those outbreaks, because eventually those outbreaks will spill into the community."

State Sen. LaTonya Johnson

A Wisconsin Senate bill would stop the state from prioritizing prisoners, allowing them to get their shot at the same time as others should be eligible.

"It could be a person that is a three-time murder and they’re getting the vaccine before a 65-year lady that has asthma," said State Sen. Van Wanggaard. "She’s out there and she’s law-abiding her whole life, so it doesn’t seem right that they should jump the line."

State Sen. Van Wanggaard

The Eighth Amendment gives prisoners the right to the same level of health care as people outside of prisons.

The Wisconsin Senate committee has also heard testimony on a bill that would stop employers from mandating their employees get the COVID-19 vaccine.

COVID-19 vaccine vial

The proposals are not part of a COVID-19 relief package passed by the Wisconsin Senate and backed by Gov. Tony Evers. The Wisconsin Assembly objects to that package, saying it wants changes.

It's possible the Assembly will want those provisions added. If let as standalone bills, Gov. Evers would not reveal if he would veto them.

State Rep. Jim Steineke

"We’ve got make to sure that not only the governor’s needs are met in this, and the Senate’s needs are met, but also the constituents in the Assembly that their needs are met in this package," said State Rep. Jim Steineke. "The reason that we’re putting together a COVID package is to get it all across the finish line, so during these negotiations, we feel like this should be part of that conversation of the package."

While the state's vaccine advisory subcommittee recommended prisoners get prioritized, the Evers administration, for now, can ignore that recommendation.

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