MADISON – Wisconsin health officials are making COVID-19 vaccine shots available to anyone age 65 and older later this month — the state’s first move to inoculate the general public from a virus that has killed more than 5,000 people in the state in less than a year.
But the effort will take time, Wisconsin Department of Health Services officials warned. The agency announced the expansion of the state’s vaccine rollout to Wisconsin’s elderly as the state continues to receive fewer doses of vaccine from the federal government than needed to quickly provide shots to state residents.
About 700,000 people in Wisconsin are 65 or older but the state received about 70,000 first-dose vaccines each week, according to the agency.
Track COVID-19 in Wisconsin: See the latest numbers and trends
“Older adults have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and prioritizing this population will help save lives,” Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm said in a statement. “Wisconsin systems and operations are ready to vaccinate more people. The amount of vaccine we get from the federal government will determine how quickly we can get these groups vaccinated.”
The state agency in a release Tuesday said eligible residents may schedule appointments through their health care provider, pharmacies and local health departments. But likely not immediately.
Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary at DHS, urged patience in a briefing with reporters.
“It’s going to take a week or two to really get rolling on this … People will get their vaccine. Not tomorrow, but sometime in the next month or two,” she said. “Honestly, if I was 65 today, I’d say, that’s good — I know I’m going to get my vaccine before summer comes. And I would simply wait a few weeks and see as more information comes out.”
But a number of Wisconsin residents immediately called their local health care provider or local health department to schedule appointments when stories broke that a vaccine for a virus that has locked down life for nearly a year was now available to them.
Some reached out to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Tuesday saying their doctor’s offices, a pharmacy, and a local health department didn’t have any information for them about how to get an appointment. One doctor said she didn’t know how to get doses for the people calling to schedule appointments.
“I was pretty happy to read the article in the (Sheboygan) Press and then disappointed to get told no,” Donna Arneson, who is in her late 60s and lives in Sheboygan County, said in an email. Arneson said her doctor told her to check back next week and Sheboygan County Health and Human Services officials said their website would be updated soon with more information.
“When I asked about signing on a wait list I was told no, they couldn’t do that. It would be too many people to call back,” Arneson said. “It’s more than a brick wall for sure, no one seems to know anything.”
Van Dijk acknowledged the beginning of the rollout to the general public could be rocky but “the alternative was to sit and wait.”
“We can’t always get information to every single person in a local health department and so it’s unfortunate that some didn’t get that message,” Van Dijk said.
“The reason we went ahead before everything was tidied up is because people are dying from COVID-19 and we have vaccine that is available. We want to get shots in arms of people who are at risk of this and that is why we’re moving ahead,” she said.
Wisconsin on Tuesday reported 1,525 new COVID-19 cases and 42 deaths, bringing the death toll to 5,512. More than 40,000 people have received both doses of the vaccine in the state, and nearly 250,000 total doses have been administered.
A spokeswoman for the DHS said the agency on Monday night notified 1,200 sites already registered to vaccinate people to put in orders for their 65 and older population.
“Folks should anticipate being contacted by their health care provider, pharmacy, or local health department to let them know when they have vaccine and are setting up clinics,” DHS spokeswoman Elizabeth Goodsitt said.
Goodsitt said if a health clinic or doctor is not already registered to provide vaccines, they won’t have doses, which is likely causing the confusion. She said DHS has been working with officials in hospital systems, the Wisconsin Hospital Association, the Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards, and the Wisconsin Pharmacy Society.
She said the groups “were consulted throughout this process as a means to streamline incoming interest in getting vaccinated, have known this was coming, and have been working with their members to prepare their systems and operations.”
In the city of De Pere, health officer Deborah Armbruster said calls to the health department have at least doubled since the state’s announcement Tuesday morning.
Most of her staff didn’t find out that the state planned to expand eligibility to people 65 and older until Monday night when they filled out their survey for ordering more vaccine or Tuesday morning when the announcement went out to the public, Armbruster said.
“It is a surprise, and to know now that we can do it, we’re really all hustling to try to (figure out) what that will mean and how to meet those needs,” Armbruster said.
Brown County health officer Anna Destree said in an email that her health department learned about the plans for the 65-plus population “hours before the media and general public had.”
A spokeswoman for the city of Appleton said Tuesday that the health department received a barrage of calls after the announcement and that staff were not given enough time to prepare for handling the expansion.
“We’re willing to experience a little messiness in the beginning. As we get more people through the system and vaccinated, we will hit a cadence and get everyone vaccinated who wants a vaccine,” Van Dijk said Tuesday.
Welcome news for Wauwatosa woman
For Kathy Braier, the announcement means she may be able to visit her family and close friends with little risk before she dies.
Braier, a 67-year-old retired teacher and social worker who has Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, recently wrote to members of the state vaccine committee urging them to include adults 65 and older with medical conditions in the next release of vaccine doses.
“I’m very happy about this,” Braier, of Wauwatosa, said. “I would be able to spend the time I have left to see my children — my three sons — and my granddaughter.”
She said she’s weighing the negative reaction she will likely have to the vaccine shot and the possibility of reducing her risk around her family.
Braier said friends of similar ages living in other states have been frustrated by the process to get a vaccine appointment. The vaccine rollout across the country has prompted massive confusion over how to get an appointment.
In Wisconsin, health officials say they are planning to create an online registration website in February to manage the logistics of connecting arms with shots.
“I’m hoping our state does a little bit better job learning from the chaos that is occurring in other states,” Braier said.
Ascension Wisconsin hospitals and clinics were flooded with calls Tuesday following the announcement, a spokeswoman for the system said. But patients should not call their hospital or clinic to ask for a COVID-19 vaccine, chief clinical officer Dr. Gregory Brusko said in a statement. Rather, they should wait to hear from their provider about when the shot is available, after which they can schedule an appointment.
The system is currently reviewing their patients’ medical records and determining who is eligible based on the state’s newest guidelines, Brusko said. They’ll contact those patients in the coming weeks.
Racine County spokesman Mark Schaaf said county officials are “still gathering details on the DHS announcement regarding vaccine eligibility.”
“We would refer specific questions about the eligibility change to the DHS,” he said.
Waukesha County spokeswoman Nicole Armendariz said the county has been working with local health care providers to get them ready to vaccinate. She urged people to be patient and not attempt to sign up at clinics, which are currently for Phase 1A people or priority Phase 1B people, such as law enforcement or firefighters, not for the general public.
“As you know, there is a shortage of vaccine, so people need to wait and their health care provider will reach out to them when opportunities to sign up are available,” Armendariz said. “There will be opportunities available to the public in the future, which includes opportunities from pharmacies or mass clinics in Waukesha County, but it will be a few more weeks until that happens.”
Advocate Aurora, the largest health system in Wisconsin, will notify patients with instructions on how to schedule an appointment to get a vaccine through their LiveWell app.
Bellin Health in Green Bay is asking people who will soon be eligible for the vaccine to schedule appointments using their MyBellinHealth account or by calling 920-445-7313, though they do not need to be Bellin patients to do so.
Appointments will be limited by the number of doses the system has, a Tuesday press release from the organization said. Slots for people 65 and older will open next Monday.
‘It spread like wildfire’
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett attributed any confusion Tuesday about the availability of vaccine appointments to swift communication.
“I would argue that it’s because the media is doing such a good job in getting the information out. That what’s happening is, as soon as that state committee met, and as soon as the announcement was made that people 65 and older were going to be eligible, it spread like wildfire,” he said. “And so it reached many, many vaccinators through the media as opposed to anything else.”
Hospitals and other vaccinating entities that have vaccine doses available may provide vaccine shots to people age 65 and older before Jan. 25 if officials there have completed vaccinations for frontline workers and others in the first wave of the state’s rollout.
The move to adopt federal recommendations to begin vaccinating everyone 65 and older comes after a state committee overseeing the state’s vaccine rollout recommended vaccinating people 70 and older in the second phase of the rollout.
DHS decided to lower the age by five years last week after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance.
Sophie Carson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.
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