MILWAUKEE — In Wisconsin, COVID-19 infection rates are at their lowest point in months, and life-saving vaccines are rolling out faster than ever.
“While things are still tough for so many, and we know we’re not out of the woods quite yet, things are certainly looking up,” Gov. Tony Evers said at a media briefing this week.
Here, we take a look at some of the latest updates in Wisconsin’s vaccine plan.
Who’s gotten their shots so far?
As of the latest update Thursday, providers have given out more than 860,300 doses of COVID-19 vaccine in Wisconsin, according to the Department of Health Services.
That means more than 11% of Wisconsinites have gotten at least one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna shot, DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said at a media briefing this week. And 196,991 have gotten their booster shot too, finishing out the two-dose series.
Wisconsin’s vaccine rollout is still limited to a few high-priority groups:
Health care workers
Residents and staff of long-term care facilities
Police, fire personnel, and corrections officers
Adults 65 and older
The state’s rollout has sped up recently. DHS officials said that the state’s been getting more shots sent over from the federal government — around 89,000 each week, compared to the 70,000 or so that had been the average before.
Plus, when it comes to getting its shots into arms quickly, Wisconsin has risen in the national rankings, as Spectrum News partner the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports. After getting off to a comparatively slow start, the Badger State now leads the U.S. in daily vaccine doses per capita and ranks highly in total doses per capita.
“Every week we learn, and we get better,” Willems Van Dijk said Tuesday.
Still, state officials pointed out that vaccine supply isn’t enough to meet demand in the state, and not everyone who wants a shot will be able to get one right away.
When will more groups be eligible?
Right now, the state is offering shots to its highest-priority Phase 1A groups and some Phase 1B categories.
The DHS has predicted that vaccines will open up to more 1B groups in the coming weeks. Next up on the priority list are:
Education and childcare workers
People in Medicaid long-term care programs
Some public-facing essential workers, including: 911 operators, utility and communications infrastructure workers, public transit workers, food supply chain workers
Non-frontline essential health care personnel
Congregate living staff and residents, including incarcerated people
The DHS previously predicted that these groups will start opening up around March 1. With the way things are going now, Willems Van Dijk said they're still aiming for that date.
More than one-third of all Wisconsinites in the 65-and-up age range have gotten at least their first dose, Willems Van Dijk added, and vaccines for older adults will continue even after more 1B groups get added to the list.
Beyond 1B, it’s not clear how the rollout will go. Willems Van Dijk said she anticipates the next groups will take another month or two to work through.
After that, she said, the state might decide to add another limited phase. An advisory committee previously talked about adults with underlying conditions and more essential workers as potential Phase 1C candidates.
Depending on what supply looks like, the state might also decide to open up to the general public after 1B. Officials didn’t give a specific timeline for the general public, though — the “crystal ball” of predicting the next few months “will never be that clear,” Willems Van Dijk said.
Where are vaccines available?
A wide variety of providers across the state are working to get shots in arms.
Health care systems have been getting doses to their own staffers and reaching out to eligible patients. Pharmacies across the state are doling out vaccines as well.
And more wide-scale vaccination clinics are continuing to open up: Evers announced the state would open its first community-based clinic in Rock County next week, with plans to add more sites across the state. Kenosha, Milwaukee, the Fox Cities, and Washington and Ozaukee counties have opened up their own regular clinics for eligible residents.
The federal government also announced it would start sending shots directly to retail pharmacies to speed up vaccination. In Wisconsin, Walgreens locations across the state will be able to give out doses starting Friday.
We’ve collected more local resources for scheduling shots here.
What about the new coronavirus variants?
So far, Wisconsin has found two cases of the variant originally identified in the U.K. — one in Eau Claire County, and another reported in Waukesha County this week.
Experts have raised concerns that these variants appear to be more contagious than earlier strains of the virus, and may have changed enough to make vaccines less effective.
In South Africa, where another variant of the virus has become dominant, leaders stopped rolling out the AstraZeneca vaccine this week. Clinical studies found those shots weren’t effective at preventing mild or moderate COVID-19 cases from the variant.
AstraZeneca’s vaccine is not yet authorized in the U.S., though. In lab-based tests, Pfizer and Moderna reported that antibodies produced by their shots were still pretty good at fending off mutated viruses — though possibly less effective than against the original virus.
While there’s a lot left to learn, DHS Chief Medical Officer Ryan Westergaard said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the shots we have will protect against these variants.
“I would characterize it as there’s some reason for concern, but overwhelming reason for confidence in the vaccines that we do have,” Westergaard said at a briefing.
What should I do while I wait for my shot?
All those same protective measures are really important while we’re waiting for vaccines to keep rolling out: Wearing masks, staying home as much as possible, washing hands, and social distancing.
With the virus variants showing up in the U.S., it’s extra important to stay vigilant with these precautions, DHS officials said. Wisconsin’s COVID-19 infections have dropped since the start of the new year — but that doesn’t mean we can let down our guard.
“We’ve made a lot of progress, but we’re also highly vulnerable to see some of that progress undone if we take our foot of the gas, if we let the virus spread,” Westergaard said.
The CDC released new guidance Wednesday about mask wearing. For the best protection, masks should fit snugly to your face and have multiple layers, the CDC recommends. Finding masks with multiple layers of fabric, or wearing one disposable mask under a cloth one, can help filter out droplets more effectively.