MILWAUKEE — Most Wisconsinites are now eligible to get their COVID-19 vaccinations. And every day, life-saving shots are going into arms, bringing us closer to the end of the pandemic.
Over a year after the coronavirus first showed up in the state, and with more than three months of the vaccine rollout now behind us, we take a look at the latest news to know here in the Badger State.
Wisconsin opens its biggest vaccine phase yet
This week, the Badger State took a big step in opening up vaccine appointments: Residents with a wide variety of chronic health conditions became eligible for the shots starting Monday.
The phase focuses on 20 conditions that are linked with a higher risk of severe COVID-19 cases, including asthma, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
According to DHS estimates, the move added more than 2 million Wisconsinites to the eligible population. Nearly 70% of residents may qualify based on their BMI alone, as overweight and obese residents are considered part of this high-risk phase.
The state actually opened up to this phase a week earlier than originally planned, after making good progress on moving through its other priority groups.
“We knew we were putting a very big group in here, but we’re getting much closer to being able to have supply to open up to everyone,” Willems Van Dijk said at a media briefing. “So, it didn’t worry us that we were putting a larger number of people in the group, because the ultimate goal is to move vaccine into arms as quickly as possible.”
Of course, Wisconsinites in earlier groups — including teachers, health care workers, adults 65 and older, some essential workers, and more — are still eligible to get their shots, too.
Milwaukee also opened up its vaccines to all adults in ten ZIP codes, targeting areas with high social vulnerability and low vaccination rates.
“Utilizing the ZIP code data is a step in the right direction towards serving our underrepresented neighborhoods of color and instilling confidence that they will be treated with equity and respect in our healthcare system,” Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley shared on Twitter.
A look at the numbers
As of Thursday, more than 1.5 million Wisconsinites have gotten at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine and more than 900,000 have finished their vaccine series, per DHS data.
That means more than one-quarter of all Wisconsinites have started their vaccine series, including almost three-quarters of older residents — 65 and up.
Compared to other states, Wisconsin still ranks highly for getting its shots into arms quickly. And the pace has kept ramping up, with more doses flowing in from the federal government. Last week alone, more than 300,000 doses were administered in the state.
Racial disparities still persist, though, with DHS data showing white residents have gotten vaccinated at higher rates than other groups. Around 25% of white Wisconsinites have gotten at least one dose, while only around 10% each of Black and Hispanic residents have gotten a shot.
The one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been rolling into the state, with more than 45,000 doses administered since they were authorized in February. Starting next week, the J&J shots will start arriving in bigger numbers, DHS officials said.
This week, Gov. Tony Evers also signed off on a bill allowing dentists to give out COVID-19 vaccines, opening up the pool of potential vaccinators. And the DHS announced it would open up another community-based vaccine clinic in Wausau starting April 6, joining the other DHS-run sites in Rock, La Crosse, and Racine Counties.
Herd immunity by summer?
The DHS plans to open up vaccines to the general public no later than May 1, letting anyone in the 16-and-older age range schedule their shots.
This puts Wisconsin among the majority of states that have promised to meet or beat President Joseph Biden’s goal for universal eligibility — although at least 30 other states said they’d open up even earlier, according to a New York Times analysis.
Not everyone will be able to get their shot right away, of course. But DHS officials have estimated that over the summer, we’ll have enough supply to get most adults vaccinated.
“Wouldn’t that be a wonderful Fourth of July celebration, to hit 80% community immunity in the state of Wisconsin?” Willems Van Dijk said at a briefing.
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact number, but most scientific estimates predict that we’d need between 70 to 90% of people immune to reach a “herd immunity” level — a point when the virus can’t find enough hosts to keep spreading.
Since the vaccines started rolling out in December, coronavirus infections in the state have already dropped off dramatically. But even though we’re no longer at the “extremely, critically, uber-high level” of the fall surge, we are still seeing too many cases for comfort, Willems Van Dijk said.
“In a way, we’ve been lulled into a sense of security here in Wisconsin,” she said. “We had it so bad, that just having it bad doesn’t seem too awful to us.”
Especially as contagious viral variants have continued to spread, cases in Wisconsin have ticked back up slightly, and some neighbors — including Michigan, Minnesota, and Illinois — have seen concerning spikes, precautions like masking and distancing are still crucial.
The latest on vaccine development
Yet another COVID-19 vaccine could be looking for FDA authorization soon. AstraZeneca announced this week that its vaccine was safe and had a 76% efficacy rate, based on clinical trials in the U.S. — some of which were conducted at UW Health.
Reporting the results has been complicated. Earlier in the week, the drugmaker said its shots were 79% efficacious, but an independent panel said those numbers were outdated. After recalculating the data from its 32,000 study participants, AstraZeneca came up with the new, slightly lower number.
Still, the updated rate would indicate strong protection against COVID-19. And, according to AstraZeneca’s reports, the shots were 100% effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths from the virus.
The AstraZeneca vaccines have already rolled out in other countries, including much of Europe. But the shots would still have to undergo the FDA’s review process before they could be made available in the U.S.
The vaccines use a similar model to the Johnson & Johnson shots, “smuggling” the DNA for a coronavirus spike protein into the body inside a weakened common cold virus.
And even for the vaccines that are already authorized across the U.S., the research hasn’t stopped. Researchers are now testing whether the three vaccines we’re using now are safe and effective in kids, who weren’t included in the original trials.
Plus, Pfizer and Moderna have both said they’re looking into ways they can adapt their vaccines to fight off viral variants, including with possible booster shots.