Virtually all of the Wisconsin lawmakers who responded to a Wisconsin State Journal inquiry said they have or plan to get the COVID-19 vaccine — although the few who say they won’t and the majority of those who didn’t respond are Republicans.
The State Journal this week asked each member of the Wisconsin Legislature and the state’s congressional delegation if they had received the COVID-19 vaccine or if they planned to do so. Several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they plan to get vaccinated once they become eligible. On Monday, eligibility expands to all Wisconsin residents age 16 and older.
As Wisconsin vaccinators race to administer doses of the vaccine to residents, state health officials have pointed to “warning signs” of a potential surge in cases as Wisconsin’s seven-day average ticks up from fewer than 400 in mid-March to 470 on Wednesday. On Wednesday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers COVID-19 emergency order and accompanying face mask mandate, leaving mitigation efforts to local officials.
At a town hall meeting in Hudson on Monday, U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, falsely claimed no one under the age of 19 has died from the disease in Wisconsin, although two people have, including a Madison East High School student, according to a Wisconsin Public Radio report. He also said he has discouraged his adult daughters from getting vaccinated.
The 54 state lawmakers who responded as of Thursday morning included 40 of 50 Democratic lawmakers and 14 of 80 Republicans.
Only one, Rep. Scott Allen, R-Waukesha, said he does not plan on getting vaccinated. Allen, one of the Legislature’s more conservative members, did not say why he does not plan on being vaccinated. Earlier this year, Allen and Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, told Channel3000 they wouldn’t get the vaccine. In early March, Rep. James Edming, R-Glen Flora, said he doesn’t believe the vaccine is safe and it should be eliminated. Edming and Thiesfeldt did not respond to this week’s State Journal inquiry.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that COVID-19 vaccines were evaluated in tens of thousands of participants in clinical trials. The vaccines also met the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s standards for safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality to support emergency use authorization. More than 145 million doses of vaccines have been administered across the country as of Monday.
Sens. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, and Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, declined to disclose their vaccine plans. All of the other state lawmakers who responded said they have already been fully vaccinated, have received at least one dose of the vaccine or plan to get inoculated.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said it’s hard to know how much a lawmaker’s vaccination affects buy-in by the public, considering how political the coronavirus and vaccines have become across the country, but he said it’s as simple as leading by example.
“If we’re asking people to step up and do this, I think it matters that we’re doing it as well,” Hintz said, adding that he plans to receive his second vaccine dose soon.
Others, including Sens. Eric Wimberger, R-Green Bay, and Brad Pfaff, D-Onalaska, along with Reps. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin; Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna; Nick Molroy, D-South Range; Sue Conley, D-Janesville; and Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, said they have not yet received a vaccine but plan to once they’re eligible.
Although Sen. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, has not received the vaccine yet, “He encourages everyone who is eligible to get it, and plans on doing so himself when he is eligible,” Kooyenga’s spokesman Chris Rochester said.
Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona, said he was offered the vaccine in January, but declined to allow others more in need to get vaccinated. James said he is waiting to get vaccinated at this time as he learns more about the effects.
“I believe those who are 100% on board with getting the vaccination should get it before me, at least until the time where I may get to the 100% level,” James said.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, did not respond to the State Journal’s inquiry but said last week he plans to get vaccinated. Also last week, the Assembly passed — largely along party lines — bills to prohibit certain government officials and business owners from requiring employees to get the coronavirus vaccine.
“I intend to get a vaccine. I think most Wisconsinites do,” Vos told reporters. “This is where we need to persuade people, not have government mandates.”
Both Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, R-New Berlin, who said he plans on getting the vaccine, and Sen. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, who has received both doses, said it is up to individuals to decide whether to get vaccinated.
“I encourage everyone to do what they believe is best for themselves and their families,” Ballweg said. “Vaccines are a personal choice that are best made in consultation with individuals’ health care providers.”
Local and national public health officials, along with Evers, who was vaccinated in February, have called on elected officials to lead by example by getting vaccinated to help reach those who may be hesitant to get the vaccine.
Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, said she received her first dose of the vaccine and is awaiting her second. Roys said she urges people to get the shot as soon as they’re eligible, adding that those who are either silent on the issue or have publicly spoken out against the vaccine only hurt the state’s efforts to quell the virus.
“It’s very dangerous to have people in positions of power, even state legislators, out there spewing anti-science nonsense,” Roys said. “People absolutely died as a result of those conflicting messages from people in power.”
A national poll by Marist College with NPR and PBS NewsHour released earlier this month found that 45% of adult respondents said they will get vaccinated, while 22% said they already have and 30% said they will not. The poll found that 49% of Republican men said they will not get vaccinated.
Another poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 42% of Republicans say they probably or definitely will not get the shot, compared with 17% of Democrats — a 25-point difference.
“This is the most impactful tool some of us have to achieve herd immunity and combat this deadly virus,” said state Rep. Francesca Hong, D-Madison, who has received one dose of the vaccine. “I encourage community leaders and health officials to do our part in working together better to increase vaccine availability and accessibility to underserved communities. This virus is disproportionately impacting more (Black, Indigenous and people of color) yet the rates of vaccination for these communities remains low.”
Herd immunity by June
On Thursday, the state health department announced $6.2 million in federal grants had been awarded to 100 organizations around the state to support community-based groups in efforts to build vaccine confidence and reduce barriers that limit access for marginalized or underserved populations.
“As part of our work to reach an 80% vaccination rate across our state, we have to ensure those Wisconsinites that have been hit hardest by the pandemic have the opportunity to protect themselves and their loved ones from the virus,” DHS Secretary Karen Timberlake said in a statement.
Even with expanded eligibility opening up on Monday, Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the state Department of Health Services, said Tuesday health officials still don’t expect the state to reach herd immunity of at least 80% of adults fully vaccinated until June at the earliest. She said the largest factor in vaccinating the public remains the supply of vaccine doses provided to the state, adding that vaccine hesitancy is another concern.
As for Wisconsin’s congressional leaders, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth, and Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Green Bay, said they’ve been fully vaccinated. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, has received her first dose. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, said he has not yet received the vaccine but plans to.
Members of Congress have been able to receive vaccines since December.
Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, told WDJT in Milwaukee he did not plan on getting vaccinated after testing positive in October.
“No, I had COVID,” Johnson said. “I think that probably provides me with the best immunity possible (for) actually having the disease.”
The CDC recommends everyone get vaccinated, “regardless of whether you already had COVID-19” because experts do not know how long an individual is protected from the virus after recovering from the coronavirus.
The offices of Johnson, Tiffany, and U.S. Reps. Scott Fitzgerald, Glenn Grothman and Bryan Steil did not respond to the State Journal’s inquiry.