After weeks of slowly titrating out the COVID-19 vaccine to larger and larger groups of people, Wisconsin’s vaccine program will go wide open next week, as all state residents 16 and older become eligible for the shot starting Monday, April 5.
Gov. Tony Evers announced the expanded eligibility for the vaccine Tuesday afternoon.
“Now, it won’t all happen at once,” Evers said during a media briefing held by the state Department of Health Services (DHS). “Supply is still limited, so please be patient.”
People seeking the vaccine are being advised to contact their health providers if they have one. Vaccines are also available at many local drugstores, through community-based vaccination clinics where they exist or through local health departments, according to DHS. The department has a website with guidance for people seeking the vaccine.
In opening up vaccine eligibility to the general public, DHS officials have advanced the calendar four weeks ahead of the original May 1 date for that step.
The decision followed word from the federal government that vaccine shipments to the state are expected to increase in the coming weeks, according to DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk.
“With more vaccines coming into the state, we want to be sure that there are more and more eligible people to receive those vaccines,” Van Dijk said. She also cited the state’s progress in moving through previous eligibility groups under the system that was established in response to early shortages of vaccine supplies.
More than 1 million state residents have now been completely vaccinated, according to the department. Van Dijk said 75% of people 65 and older have received at least one shot, and more than half in that age group have completed the process, usually by getting a two-shot series in which two brands of vaccine are given.
A majority of educators — another early, high-priority group — have also been vaccinated. People with chronic health conditions, who became eligible March 22, a week earlier than planned, are also getting shots, she said.
“But we also know there just aren’t that many more people left to put in the mix,” said Van Dijk. “And so this decision to move ahead with everybody really simplifies the whole scenario for our vaccinators, for our public. No more having to sort out if you’re in or if you’re out — it’s time to just move forward and get everybody.”
Individual vaccine providers may still exercise discretion in setting priorities for the vaccine, she added, based on their supplies, the populations they serve and the availability of vaccine in the wider communities where they are located.
Advancing the eligibility timetable isn’t likely to change the state’s projected target date for when there will be a sufficient supply to allow 80% of residents to be vaccinated — the target rate for herd immunity, Van Dijk said.
Along with the state’s success in getting more people vaccinated, however, Evers and Van Dijk both added a note of urgency.
Once again Tuesday, Wisconsin saw an increase in the number of people who have tested positive for the coronavirus. According to DHS, there were 588 new confirmed cases in the state as of Tuesday, and the seven-day average for new cases each day rose to 501.
The total number of reported infections is now 576,632, while there were 11 new deaths reported Tuesday, for a total of 6,612 people who have been confirmed to have died from the illness.
“This pandemic is not over,” Evers said Tuesday, renewing warnings that he and health officials have been sounding against complacency as the number of new cases declined in the first three months of 2021. “Don’t let the COVID-19 fatigue get the best of you when we are this close to the finish line.”
On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court is scheduled to release its decision in a lawsuit challenging whether the governor acted lawfully in declaring successive health emergencies, including new mask orders, since August. The state’s current emergency and mask order expire April 5.
Evers said he hoped that the court would rule in the administration’s favor, and if it does, “we’ll decide whether we’re going to extend that order or not.”
With the increasing trend of cases and new variants of the virus that transmit more easily, he acknowledged the likely possibility that if permitted, he would institute a new order.
“We’re not even close to the finish line,” the governor said. It’s not possible, he added, to pinpoint that time in the future. “We will know when we’re close to the finish line by the amount of transmission that we’re seeing in the state of Wisconsin. Right now we have a lot of it.” Evers added: “And it won’t be until we see a consistent decrease in the number of cases. And a significant number of people in Wisconsin getting shots.”
The growing number of average cases each day “is a warning sign,” Van Dijk said. But she also observed that “it’s always easier to know when you were in a surge after it’s happened than when you’re in the midst of it.”
Looking ahead to the coming holiday weekend, Evers and Van Dijk both implored the public to stick with virus mitigation practices: wearing masks in public, maintaining physical distance from others outside the household, gathering outside but only in small groups while avoiding indoor gatherings.
“We know what we can do about it,” Van Dijk said. “And we’re asking people to do that — which is to continue to take the preventive measures that we’ve been taking.”
And along with those, “step up and get vaccinated, so that there’s not an open vaccine appointment anywhere in the state between now and the end of June,” she added. “That is what we need to do to continue to fight against this disease.”