People 65 and older in Wisconsin will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine starting Monday, the state Department of Health Services said Tuesday, as a portion of the general public gets its first chance for protection against the pandemic that has claimed more than 5,500 lives in the state and some 400,000 nationwide.
But with 700,000 older adults in Wisconsin and only about 70,000 first doses of the vaccine arriving weekly, seniors seeking shots at their medical clinics, local pharmacies and local health departments may initially face busy phone lines, lengthy waits and uncertain information on websites.
Still, those are the places they should turn to, along with community clinics that might be set up by next month with centralized registration, said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy director of the state health department.
“It will take some time to reach everyone in this age group who wants to be vaccinated,” Willems Van Dijk said, adding most should be able to be immunized within two months. “We’re going to live through a little bit of trial and error about people finding where to go.”
Older adults will join frontline health care workers, residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and police officers and firefighters as eligible priority groups in the state.
Other groups in the next phase of COVID-19 immunization, known as phase 1b, would be teachers, child care workers, prisoners and others who live in congregate settings such as group homes and mental health institutes, along with mink farmers, according to a plan by a state committee released last week.
The committee, which received more than 5,000 public comments on the plan, is scheduled to meet again Wednesday. It is expected to send a final version to the larger State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee, which meets Thursday. The plan will then go to the health department.
“We will look at that list very carefully, and we will look at the analysis by the group,” Willems Van Dijk said, “and we will make a determination about whether we accept their recommendations in full or whether we feel there’s any need to adapt them in any way.”
Some groups not on the committee’s phase 1b list — such as grocery store and public transit workers — have questioned why they haven’t been given priority. They would come under the following phase, known as 1c, according to the committee.
The general public age 16 and older would be in phase 2, expected to start in late spring or early summer.
While the state committee recommended people 70 and older should be in phase 1b, the federal government last week suggested 65 and older, along with other adults with high-risk medical conditions.
Willems Van Dijk said the health department went with 65 and older to align with the federal recommendation, target the group with the highest rate of COVID-19 deaths and allow hospitals finishing up phase 1a with excess vaccine to continue immunizing people.
Meanwhile, Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday signed a new COVID-19 public health emergency and a 60-day extension of the state’s mask mandate, first issued in July — moves he said Friday he would make. The statewide order requires everyone ages 5 and older to wear a face-covering when indoors or in any enclosed space open to the public.
In Madison, health care providers said they’d soon start contacting patients eligible for COVID-19 shots, and suggested patients visit their websites for more information.
UW Health said people who want the vaccine can visit uwhealth.org/vaccine and learn about scheduling appointments.
“While UW Health expects to start scheduling a limited number of newly eligible patients this week, vaccine supply is still very low, and even those eligible for the vaccine may not be able to receive it for some time,” UW Health said in a statement.
SSM Health this week will start contacting eligible patients, with scheduling information to be sent in phases, spokeswoman Lisa Adams said. “Because there are hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites eligible for vaccination in this phase, we are asking for everyone’s patience as we work to quickly and efficiently vaccinate all eligible patients,” she said.
“UnityPoint Health-Meriter is excited to start vaccinating patients soon, and we are busy finalizing operational plans and requesting more vaccine allocation to quickly and safely begin public vaccinations,” said Leah Huibregtse, the hospital’s spokeswoman. “We will start directly contacting our patients age 65 and older who are eligible for the vaccine.”
Public Health Madison and Dane County, which has been providing injections to groups such as first responders, said older adults should wait to hear from their medical providers. For those without regular providers, the department said it will soon have a sign-up form to match people with vaccinators.
“A lot hinges on availability of vaccine,” said Sarah Mattes, spokeswoman for the city-county health department.
If vaccine supply increases, community clinics could be set up by February or March in settings such as UW System campuses and large workplaces, Willems Van Dijk said.
More than 1,200 vaccination providers, including hospitals, local health departments, pharmacies and community clinics, have registered with the state to dispense shots. Mobile vaccines units organized by the state, including the Wisconsin National Guard, were expected to begin work Tuesday.
Vaccinators with any vaccine on hand can begin to vaccinate older adults prior to Monday if they have finished with the previously eligible populations, state officials said.
Nearly 250,000 doses given
So far, 248,185 doses of COVID-19 vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna have been given in Wisconsin, including 40,545 booster shots. That’s fewer doses per capita than most states, including others in the Upper Midwest, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
State officials have said they had to initially put a higher proportion of doses aside to prepare for immunization in assisted living facilities because the state has a higher share of people in such facilities.
First doses of vaccine have been given at 89% of the state’s 360 nursing homes, and immunizations will begin next week at the state’s 4,500 assisted living facilities, said Stephanie Schauer, immunization program manager for the state health department.
The federal government said last week it might stop holding back booster shots in order to ship more vaccine to states. But federal officials reaffirmed Tuesday they are continuing to keep second doses in reserve so people can get them three or four weeks after their first doses, Willems Van Dijk said.