MILWAUKEE — A broad group of Wisconsinites with high-risk medical conditions have been added to the COVID-19 vaccine list.

What You Need To Know

  • Patients with asthma, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other conditions are eligible

  • These groups can get their shots starting March 22

  • The new phase adds more than 2 million Wisconsinites to the vaccine list

  • After this group, the state plans to open shots to the general public in May

On March 11, the Department of Health Services released a list of 20 different medical conditions that would qualify residents for the next vaccine phase, set to start on March 29. Days later, the eligibility date was pushed up to March 22.

“The point is, these are all people who are at risk for the disease, and we want to get them front in line before we open to the full population,” DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said at a media briefing.

Here, we break down what the news will mean for Wisconsinites.

Who is included in the next phase?

Any Wisconsinites aged 16 and up will be eligible if they have one of the following conditions:

  • Asthma (moderate-to-severe)

  • Cancer

  • Cerebrovascular disease (affects blood vessels and blood supply to the brain)

  • Chronic kidney disease

  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)

  • Cystic fibrosis

  • Down syndrome

  • Heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies

  • Hypertension or high blood pressure

  • Immunocompromised state (weakened immune system) from solid organ transplant, blood or bone marrow transplant, immune deficiencies, HIV, use of corticosteroids, or use of other immune-weakening medicines

  • Liver disease

  • Neurologic conditions, such as dementia

  • Obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 30-39 kg/m2)

  • Overweight (BMI of 25-29 kg/m2)

  • Pregnancy

  • Pulmonary fibrosis (having damaged or scarred lung tissues)

  • Severe obesity (BMI 40 kg/m2 or more)

  • Sickle cell disease

  • Type 1 or 2 diabetes mellitus

  • Thalassemia (a type of blood disorder)

All of these are linked with increased risk for severe COVID-19 cases, and are listed in guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 37 states already offer vaccines for people with underlying conditions, according to a New York Times analysis.

As the CDC explains, nearly 90% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 have some underlying medical condition -- “most commonly hypertension, obesity, metabolic disease, and cardiovascular disease.” And, if a patient has multiple chronic conditions, their coronavirus risk goes up exponentially.

The CDC’s list of possible Phase 1C groups also included some essential worker categories, like those in media, construction and finance. 

But Wisconsin’s next phase focuses just on chronic conditions. DHS officials said they didn’t want to expand the group too far and overwhelm the vaccination system.

“We still need to do a balancing of people most at risk with vaccine supply,” Willems Van Dijk said.

For many Wisconsinites, the move couldn't come soon enough. 

As more and more people across the state have been getting their shots, some high-risk residents have reported feeling overlooked by the rollout. Over 1,400 people signed a recent petition asking Wisconsin to prioritize people with underlying health conditions. 

And when an expert panel was mulling over the Phase 1B guidelines, hundreds of residents wrote in public comments asking for these groups to be included. They expressed concerns for themselves (“if anyone in the family gets it and gives it to me, I will die”) and their loved ones (“It could save my friend’s life, and could be the thing that allows me one more chance to see her again”).

How many people are in this phase?

The new group is the biggest expansion yet of Wisconsin’s vaccine pool.

The DHS estimates more than 2 million residents will become eligible based on these underlying conditions - though it’s hard to get an exact number, since some of these patients were already included in previous priority groups, officials said. 

This is a much bigger group than, for example, the Phase 1B population that was added as March kicked off, which represented around 700,000 Wisconsinites.

Willems Van Dijk said because of the sheer size of the group, vaccine providers might need to sub-prioritize, like getting shots first to patients with multiple conditions, or especially severe cases, and focusing on minority communities that have faced disproportionate effects from the pandemic.

How will high-risk Wisconsinites get their shots?

As of Monday morning, Wisconsinites with these chronic conditions have access to all the vaccine resources that are also currently open to 1A and 1B groups. 

High-risk residents can seek out their shots at pharmacies, community clinics and local health departments. Some health providers will also reach out directly to eligible patients, since they can easily identify which patients have underlying conditions.

Willems Van Dijk said the state is also looking into setting up more mass vaccination clinics across the state with the help of FEMA and local health departments.

Who’s up after this group?

Once a good portion of this next high-risk group is vaccinated -- around half -- the plan is to open up shots for everyone 16 and older, Willems Van Dijk said.

According to the DHS, the vaccine pool will open up to the general public sometime in May. That’s in line with predictions from the Biden administration, which recently pushed up the timeline for all adults to be vaccine eligible.

Vaccinations will probably continue through the summer, but within the first half of the year Willems Van Dijk said every Wisconsinite who wants a shot should have the chance to get one.

The Badger State has been ramping up its vaccine rollout, and is now one of the leading states for getting shots in arms. More than 10% of all Wisconsinites have already completed their vaccine series with two shots of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or one shot of Johnson & Johnson.

With infection rates looking better too, state officials said we’re heading in the right direction as long as we keep our guard up for a little while longer.

“We are ready to turn the corner,” Gov. Tony Evers said at Thursday’s briefing. “We are ready to kick this pandemic to the curb, and we are in a great position to do it. But we are not going to give up now.”​