MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A highly contagious coronavirus variant is becoming more prevalent in Wisconsin but vaccine shots should be available to everyone by mid-summer, pushing the state closer to the end of the pandemic, health officials said Thursday.
State Department of Health Services Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk told reporters during a question-and-answer session that sequencing has now detected 19 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant in the state. The variant was first detected in the United Kingdom late last year.
Van Dijk pointed to President Joe Biden’s pledge that enough vaccine will be available for everyone who wants a shot by the end of May. She said those doses should be administered in Wisconsin by June or early July. The department plans to announce the next groups eligible for shots next week after opening up vaccinations to teachers and child care workers on Monday.
“We are so close, Wisconsin,” Van Dijk said. “We just need a couple more months to bring up vaccine supplies and use protective barriers to bring disease rates down and we’ll be on the other side of this.”
She defined “the other side” as low infection rates, everyone having access to vaccine, strong testing systems and not having to wear masks in public. Her comments are the most optimistic remarks to come out of the Evers administration since the pandemic began a year ago.
State health officials continued to work Thursday to expand access to vaccinations. They announced a new hotline for vaccine-related questions and two more vaccination sites joined the state’s online registry, which allows people to schedule appointments.
The DHS launched the registry Wednesday after a two-day delay to fix glitches. It included only a community vaccination site in Janesville, but on Thursday it listed the Green County Health Department as well as a new community vaccination site at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse slated to open Tuesday. That site is expected to administer 200 doses per day initially with plans to ramp up to 1,000 doses daily, Gov. Tony Evers office said.
UW System President Tommy Thompson told regents on Thursday that another vaccination site is set to open at UW-Milwaukee next week as well.
In another positive sign, the seven-day average of positive cases was 522, a level not seen since early July 2020. The state reported COVID-19 was a factor in 12 more deaths, bringing the total death toll to 6,470. The number of active cases statewide was 7,294 and the recovery rate stood at nearly 98%.
The battle over wearing masks played out again in the state Capitol on Wednesday. A photo Democratic state Sen. Melissa Agard posted on Twitter showed dozens of people unmasked and not socially distanced listening to an Assembly Committee on Constitution and Ethics hearing in an overflow room.
“We are nearly a year into this pandemic, and this is what we are seeing in the state capitol today: no masks, no social distancing, and no safety precautions for the staff who have no choice but to be in the building,” Agard wrote on Twitter. “This is reckless and dangerous.”
Lawmakers have been at odds about mask-wearing in committee hearings, with many Republican lawmakers choosing not to do so.
The committee heard testimony on a resolution calling for a constitutional convention to impose fiscal and other restraints on the federal government and bills to prohibiting mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations.
Many who testified were critical of what they called government overreach, specifically government or employer vaccination and mask mandates.