MILWAUKEE — Four months into the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, providers across the state have gotten more than four million shots into arms, according to Department of Health Services data.
Anyone 16 and older is now eligible to schedule their appointments. And every day, more Wisconsinites are rolling up their sleeves for the vaccines that will protect them as well as their communities.
But as the rollout has rolled on, the challenges for vaccinators haven’t disappeared — they’ve just evolved. Here, we break down the latest news to know in the Badger State.
Most eligible Wisconsinites have started their vaccine series
As of Tuesday, more than 40% of all Wisconsinites had gotten at least one shot, and more than 30% had finished their vaccine series, according to DHS data.
Though there’s still no vaccine authorized for anyone under 16, the state opened up appointments for everyone else in the general public earlier this month. Excluding the kids and teens who aren’t allowed to get their shots yet, the majority of residents “have started their vaccine journey” with at least one dose, DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said at a media briefing.
Even as younger Wisconsinites have gotten the green light, older residents are still leading by a long shot: More than 80% of adults 65 and up have gotten at least one dose. Women in Wisconsin are slightly ahead of men in vaccination rates, matching the vaccine gender gap that’s shown up across the U.S.
And racial disparities persist, too. Around 40% of white Wisconsinites have gotten a shot, according to DHS data, while other racial groups are still seeing lower rates — in particular Black residents, under 20% of whom have gotten a shot.
For those who still need a shot, the DHS is directing people to the CDC-run VaccineFinder website to look for appointments. The online service can help you find nearby vaccinators with available doses, and also search for a certain brand of vaccine.
But vaccine demand is starting to slow down
Health officials have long predicted that, at a certain point, the central challenge of the rollout would change: Instead of scrambling to get shots into eager arms, vaccinators would be working to reach groups who had concerns about the vaccine, or who had trouble accessing shots.
After months of limited doses and “hunting” for vaccine appointments, that tide seems to be turning in Wisconsin. As of last week, Willems Van Dijk said demand from vaccinators was still outpacing the 150,000 weekly doses of supply, but “the gap is closing.”
For the first time since February, weekly vaccination rates in Wisconsin have ticked down from the start of April, DHS data shows.
Willems Van Dijk said part of the dip was due to a lack of Johnson & Johnson shots over the past couple weeks. But even the doses that are available aren’t being snapped up as quickly.
In Milwaukee, the FEMA mass vaccination site at the Wisconsin Center started accepting walk-ins this month as appointment slots went unfilled. That clinic — where average daily doses have been running at a fraction of the site’s total capacity — will shut down at the end of next month, local health officials said.
Wisconsin seems to have done a good job of reaching the people who were most eager to get their vaccines, Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson said at an event this month. That leaves others who are more “middle of the road” in their attitudes about the shots.
“I think people, you know, they have questions. They have concerns, and they have fears around the vaccine,” Johnson said. “So, I think, that next group is really getting information to them so they’re comfortable, and then making the vaccine as easy as possible to get.”
Johnson said the next phase of vaccination would lean more on “meeting people where they are.” Across the state, Willems Van Dijk said the DHS would be relying more on smaller vaccination clinics within communities — like at faith-based organizations, shopping centers or other places where people won’t have to go out of their way for their shots.
And having open, honest conversations about the vaccines — especially with trusted sources, like family members or primary care providers — will also be important moving forward, officials said. There’s “no wrong way to feel” about a new vaccine, state epidemiologist Dr. Ryan Westergaard said at a briefing, so validating people’s concerns and communicating what we know about the vaccines’ safety will be key.
“The more we learn about these vaccines, the better we feel about their safety and about their effectiveness,” Westergaard said.
Johnson & Johnson shots coming back in play
After putting the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines on hold for a safety check, the CDC and FDA gave the green light Friday for the shots to return to the mix.
The J&J vaccines were paused after rare, but serious cases of blood clots were reported in a handful of people who got the shot. Out of millions of J&J recipients, a reported 15 patients — all of them women — developed an unusual form of blood clots.
An advisory CDC panel voted that the benefits of the vaccine still outweigh the risks. But CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the pause shows “we are taking every one of those needles in a haystack that we find seriously.”
An extra warning for adult women was added to the vaccine’s fact sheet, including a note for health care providers that the rare clotting condition requires a different treatment from other forms of blood clots.
In Wisconsin, only around 4% of the doses administered have been from Johnson & Johnson, according to DHS data.
But the vaccine has unique benefits: Its one-and-done dosage and refrigerator-stable shelf life means “it’s easy to administer, it’s easy to transport and it’s easy to store,” Johnson said. The J&J vaccine was especially useful for Wisconsin’s mobile vaccination clinics, she said.
As of Tuesday, the DHS had yet to give its own green light for the state’s vaccinators to bring their J&J doses out of storage. With thousands of shots at the ready, immunizers were gearing up to administer the vaccines.
“The biggest thing for us is we can get it out of the refrigerator, because it's not doing a lot of good there,” Dr. Thad Schumacher, pharmacist and owner of Fitchburg Family Pharmacy, told Spectrum News 1. “We want to make sure that people are safe, but we also want to be able to give vaccines to as many people.”
Overall, Wisconsin is still on track to meet the July 4 herd immunity goal that state and federal officials have talked about, Willems Van Dijk said — with one important caveat.
“We would be right on target,” she said, “assuming people keep saying ‘Yes’ to the vaccine.”
The DHS has set the goal of vaccinating 80% of Wisconsinites 16 and up to get to “community immunity,” a point when the virus doesn’t have enough vulnerable hosts to keep spreading.
Willems Van Dijk said the state is expecting to have enough supply for that goal in the next few months. So the question will be whether there’s enough demand to achieve some form of normal this summer.
The “pandexit,” as some UW-Madison professors have dubbed it, is shaping up to be a tricky time — logistically and emotionally.
Though everyone wants this “marathon” of a pandemic to be over, there’s still work to be done, Johnson said. Still, she said, “I think we are all motivated by the idea that we will get there, and we are getting there.”
There are some hopeful signs. Cases in Wisconsin are trending down again, after heading in the wrong direction for the early part of April. And the CDC continues to update its rules for post-vaccine life: On Tuesday, new guidelines gave fully vaccinated people the OK to gather and dine outside without a mask.
Plus, while keeping the bigger goals of herd immunity in mind, the personal impacts of each vaccination shouldn’t be forgotten, Westergaard pointed out. One shot in one arm means one more person who is protected.
“We should feel good every time a person gets a vaccine,” Westergaard said, “because that could result in someone not dying from COVID.”