MILWAUKEE — A broad group of vulnerable Wisconsinites will soon be eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

On Tuesday, the Department of Health Services announced that any Wisconsinites 65 and older would be able to get their shots starting next week. 

“Older adults have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and prioritizing this population will help save lives,” DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm said in a release. “Wisconsin systems and operations are ready to vaccinate more people.”

Wisconsin has administered more than 240,000 doses as of Tuesday. So far, the effort has focused on Phase 1A groups — health care workers and long-term care facilities — and this week, police and firefighters became the first chunk of Phase 1B to get their shots. 

Widening the rollout into the 65-and-up crowd would be a “significant expansion,” DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said at a media briefing

An estimated 700,000 Wisconsinites fall into this age group. With vaccines currently rolling into the state at a pace of 70,000 doses per week, Willems Van Dijk acknowledged that it would take some time to work through this category.

But DHS officials stressed the importance of vaccinating older adults, who have disproportionately faced severe symptoms and deaths from the coronavirus.

“It’s a win-win: We have people who really need the vaccine. We do have vaccine out there. It is an easy population to identify,” Willems Van Dijk said. “So, yes, it is part of getting life-saving vaccine in arms as quickly as possible.”

DHS officials said that individual providers, pharmacies, local health departments, and clinics would all likely be involved in getting shots out to older adults. 

Willems Van Dijk said eligible Wisconsinites should think about where they would normally go to get a flu shot — whether at their doctor’s office, their local pharmacy, or another provider — and check if that location has any information about scheduling appointments yet. 

She encouraged residents to look for information online if possible, instead of flooding providers’ phone lines, and stressed that patience will still be key as the pace of vaccine production won't be able to meet demand right away.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration recommended that states open up vaccines to this 65 and older age group, as well as anyone with an underlying health condition. The new DHS plan will bring Wisconsin more in line with these federal guidelines, and with the majority of other U.S. states that have begun offering vaccines to older adults.

Other groups in the Badger State’s upcoming 1B phase are still being finalized. A panel of experts on the State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee is set to vote on its recommendations this week. 

The SDMAC draft guidance would add congregate living settings, including jails and prisons, plus some groups essential workers in education, childcare, health administration, and mink husbandry.

While future phases — and even the rollout details — are still being hashed out, Willems Van Dijk said it is important to keep vaccines moving through high-priority populations. The state is about halfway through its Phase 1A groups, she said, and vaccinators have been asking to open up eligibility.

Though we may live through “a little bit of trial and error,” she said the goal of maximizing vaccine use pushed the DHS toward expanding the vaccine rollout.

“There’s all kinds of opportunities for messiness in this,” Willems Van Dijk said. "[But] the alternative was to sit and wait. And I think we’ve heard explicitly from our public, and from our scientists, and from our federal government, and from ourselves, that we want these shots in arms, and we want to keep moving it as quickly as we can.”