MILWAUKEE — In the beginning, the COVID-19 vaccines were a hot commodity.
Randy Dawes, co-owner of Swan Serv-U Pharmacy in Wauwatosa, said as the pharmacy started offering vaccines to priority groups in Wisconsin, he and his staff felt like the “gatekeepers,” trying to make sure the shots were only going into eligible arms.
And when the state opened up the rollout to the general public, the pharmacy was scrambling to keep up with the rush of people requesting shots, working long hours and bringing on new employees to boost the vaccination effort.
But in the past couple of weeks, that demand has dropped — and quickly.
“It just kind of fell off a cliff,” Dawes said. “It’s like an Easter egg hunt trying to find people.”
As requests for COVID-19 shots have slowed across the state, local vaccinators have seen their role shift. Instead of racing to get shots to vaccine-eager residents, they’re figuring out how to deliver doses to neighbors who are less enthusiastic or having trouble accessing the vaccines.
“This is the final push to get to the finish line,” Dawes said.
Almost half of Wisconsinites have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and around 40% have completed their vaccine series, according to Department of Health Services data.
After months of steady increases in weekly doses, though, the pace of vaccination has slowed since the start of April — even as eligibility restrictions were lifted. On the week of May 9, vaccinators in the state gave out the lowest number of weekly shots since January, according to DHS data.
Marwa Bakr, the owner of Infinity Pharmacy in Milwaukee, said she’s seen the decline firsthand — especially after reports of very rare blood clots in some women who had gotten the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
When the J&J vaccines first became available, Bakr said many of her customers were excited about the one-shot option, and were even asking to switch their appointments over from the two-dose Pfizer vaccine. But after federal health officials ordered a pause on the J&J vaccines to investigate the blood clot cases, that excitement took a steep dive— and didn’t come back even when the pause was lifted.
“Before that, I never wasted a dose of COVID vaccine. And I always had a waitlist,” Bakr said.
Now, she said, she’s gone from averaging 60 to 80 doses per day to around 20, and has had trouble using up all the doses in her vaccine vials. Dawes said he’s also seeing dozens of vaccine appointments go unfilled on his website, compared to peak times, when his customers would quickly snap up hundreds of slots.
The state as a whole has seen a “significant reduction” in vaccinators’ requests for doses, DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said at a briefing last week.
There are a wide range of reasons Wisconsinites may not have gotten their shots yet, officials mentioned. Some may have concerns about vaccine safety; others, like the younger age groups who are trailing in the state’s vaccination rates, “might not feel quite as threatened by COVID-19” and aren’t in a huge rush to get their shots, Willems Van Dijk said.
“Now, as we say, the hard part begins,” Willems Van Dijk said. “Which is, we find a lot of different, creative ways to do pop-up clinics, to bring vaccine to where people are at, to have more conversations with folks who are still making up their mind.”
And as mass vaccination clinics start to shut down — like the FEMA site in downtown Milwaukee, which will end its run next week — smaller sites, like these local pharmacies, are playing an important role in that work.
Both Infinity Pharmacy and Swan Serv-U Pharmacy have opened up to walk-ins over the past couple of weeks, in an effort to make it easier to get a shot, the owners said.
Dawes added that his pharmacy is registered for the state’s network of vaccinators who are willing to run onsite clinics at different locations where they’re needed — like employers, community organizations or places of worship.
“We want to try and make people feel as safe and comfortable as possible,” Dawes said.
Smaller-scale sites already have some benefits as vaccination clinics, the pharmacists said. For some people, going to a mass clinic like the Wisconsin Center may be intimidating or inconvenient, while stopping by the neighborhood pharmacy is less of a hassle.
Plus, Bakr said they have a lot of flexibility to try to serve the needs of the community. If people want to stay in their cars, her team can pop outside to the parking lot to administer drive-through shots; if older customers are having trouble with the online scheduling system, the pharmacy can still accommodate them.
They can also take the time to address their customers' questions and concerns, she said, whether that's explaining the J&J pause or emphasizing that the vaccine still boosts protection if you've already had COVID-19.
“Being an independent pharmacy, you have the ability to do things your way,” Bakr said. “You have the opportunity to make things easier.”
Even as a good chunk of the population is protected — and some are starting to shed their masks — the “long journey” of vaccinating Wisconsin is not over yet, Willems Van Dijk said in the briefing. As smaller sites are becoming a bigger part of the state’s vaccination effort, we may be seeing fewer doses administered per day moving forward.
But, she emphasized, each dose that goes out “moves us further down the road to the other side of the pandemic.”
Last week, vaccinators got the green light to give Pfizer shots to kids aged 12 to 15, which Bakr said she hoped would give another boost to vaccination rates.
For Bakr, she said it’s already been rewarding to be a part of protecting the community. She’s seen the emotional impact of the vaccine among her customers — from giving one man the freedom to see his grandson in person for the first time, to protecting a woman who had lost her own mother to COVID-19.
Not only do the shots offer strong protection for the people who are getting them, but they also make the whole community safer, Dawes pointed out. Building up herd immunity levels and preventing viral mutations from developing are key to bringing an end to the pandemic — and Dawes said he’s proud to be a part of that work in his community.
“Honestly, this is the most important thing that I've done in my professional career,” Dawes said. “And it’s the most rewarding.”
To schedule a COVID-19 vaccine appointment at Swan Serv-U Pharmacy, book online or call 414-258-9550. To schedule an appointment at Infinity Pharmacy, book online or call 414-988-0008. You can search for other local vaccine sites on Vaccines.gov.