(Illustration by Morgaine Ford-Workman)
(Illustration by Morgaine Ford-Workman)

Vaccine level to Wisconsin increases, but it’s still short of demand.

As the number of COVID-19 vaccines her department and other vaccinators across Wisconsin received in recent weeks fell significantly short of demand, Barron County Health Officer Laura Sauve hoped for a way to get the potentially life-saving medicine to more people in need. 

“All of our healthcare providers and others offering vaccinations feel they can give more vaccinations,” Sauve said Tuesday. “We have waiting lists, and we have the capacity here. We just need more ways to get the vaccine to people.”

Barron County, where 76 people have died related to the coronavirus, will join four other counties as part of an initiative to do just that. On Tuesday, Gov. Tony Evers announced four additional community based COVID-19 vaccination sites in the state, the most recent effort to continue to increase the number of state residents receiving the vaccine, thought by public health experts to be the best protection against the virus that has killed 6,317 in the state and more than 500,000 nationally. 

The clinics will be in La Crosse, Marathon, Racine, Douglas and Barron counties, with Barron and Douglas splitting time operating a clinic. The first community based clinic in the state began on Feb. 16 at Blackhawk Technical College in Rock County. 

Earlier: Wisconsin’s Online Vaccine Portal Opens March 1

The new vaccine clinic sites were chosen based on population demographics, the capacity of local health systems to provide vaccinations, and the availability of vaccine providers in various parts of the state. All individuals currently eligible for the vaccine will be able to schedule an appointment. 

The clinics are expected to open in the next two months. Each of them is expected to be able to offer about 200 vaccine doses daily initially, Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy director of the state Department of Health Services, said during a news conference Tuesday to address COVID-19. That figure could grow to as much as 1,000 doses per day, she said, but only if the state receives enough of the vaccine. 

“All of these sites are capable of doing many more vaccinations in a day,” she said. “But to do that, we need more of the vaccine coming to the state … All of this is predicated on us getting more vaccine.”

Barron and Douglas counties are splitting a clinic, Willems Van Dijk said, because neither has the population alone to support a full clinic site. Providing additional vaccinations in at least one northern Wisconsin site is important, she said. 

Sauve said she is grateful for a community clinic in her county. Having such a site in northern Wisconsin is important in aiding vaccination efforts in that part of the state, she said, noting that Barron and Douglas counties may alternate weeks during which they host a clinic site. 

“We definitely wanted access to additional vaccination opportunities for the people in this part of the state,” she said. “The people here need access.”

Health department officials in La Crosse County, which has been hit hard by COVID-19, are thankful for a community clinic as well, said Maggie Smith, the department’s public information officer. Establishing another vaccination site in addition to hospitals, pharmacies and the health department is one more tool to slow the spread of the coronavirus, she said. 

Whether the community site and other La Crosses-area vaccinators can increase their efforts will depend on the amount of vaccine, Smith said. Last week the health department received about 250 doses, or half of what it requested. That figure has been as low as 25% for some providers in recent weeks she said. County health officers across the state have reported a similar shortage. 

“Our number one limiting factor is the supply of the vaccine. That is still a concern,” she said. 

When Wisconsin began its vaccination effort in mid-December, the state received about 70,000 doses weekly, she said, a figure that has grown to 115,000 this week and is expected to remain at that level for at least the next two weeks. 

While that increase is good news, Willems Van Dijk said, it still falls far short of the 350,000 vaccine doses requested statewide last week. So far just more than 1.1 million people in Wisconsin have received one dose of the vaccine, and 375,578 have their second dose. 

Wisconsin initially struggled with its vaccine rollout, ranking near the bottom of US states in administering vaccinations. But the state has improved significantly since then and now ranks among the best in the nation in its vaccination effort, Willems Van Dijk said. 

On Tuesday the producers of Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines announced plans for significant increases in production, and President Joe Biden has pledged to boost vaccine supply.  

Those developments, along with the pending approval of another COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Johnson & Johnson and the fact that 47% of state residents 65 and older have received their first vaccine dose, give Willems Van Dijk optimism the vaccination effort will continue to ramp up. But she acknowledged vaccinating all state residents who want it in a timely manner is a “Herculean task” likely to take at least several months and maybe longer. 

Evers lauded the new community clinics, saying they are “critical to getting the vaccine to every eligible citizen who wants it.” He praised the state’s efforts to step up vaccinations but said a quick end to the coronavirus pandemic “isn’t going to happen” and efforts such as wearing face masks in public and social distancing may last until the end of this year.