A nurse fills a syringe with a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson-owned Janssen Pharmaceuticals. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
A nurse fills a syringe with a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson-owned Janssen Pharmaceuticals. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Drop-off in demand was expected, but not this quickly.

As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout first picked up steam, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) estimated that the state would reach herd immunity—where enough people, about 80%, are immune to COVID-19 so the risk of an outbreak is severely diminished—by July 4. But across the state as well as across the country, the tables have turned to where supply is outpacing demand, and health officials aren’t sure when or if we’ll reach herd immunity. 

Demand has dropped off so sharply that 1,000 to 2,000 doses are being wasted per week, Wisconsin’s No. 2 health official said Tuesday. Vials of vaccine contain multiple doses that must be used within hours of the vial being opened.

During a press briefing on Tuesday, Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy DHS secretary, said that her department had anticipated a slowdown once “the people who were most eager or most anxious, or most committed to getting vaccines largely have been able to secure a vaccine.” But she did not anticipate how quick the drop-off would be.

“I would call it a pretty precipitous drop in demand,” Willems Van Dijk said. “When the vaccine supply started to stabilize and we opened up to larger and larger populations, people were very quickly able to get doses. And then very quickly we saw a demand dropoff here in Wisconsin, as we have seen in other places.”

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Willems Van Dijk said traffic at the mass vaccination clinics in Barron, Douglas, La Crosse, Marathon, Rock, and Racine counties are so low those facilities are accepting walk-ins. Health officials are partnering with businesses, community and religious organizations to hold vaccine clinics throughout the state. Willems Van Dijk said health systems are starting to coordinate so fewer doses will go to waste.

“We are now working to get vaccine to people who either didn’t have as much information, didn’t have as easy of access, [or] didn’t have as much desire,” Willems Van Dijk said. “They may be interested or somewhat interested, but they may need a little bit more information.”

Now, instead of focusing on herd immunity, Willems Van Dijk said the department is focused on reaching the 2.1 million Wisconsinites who have not received a single dose.

“The people who felt most at-risk are likely the people who have already received their vaccine so we are now talking with people who may certainly be interested in getting a vaccine, but it’ll be on their own timetable,” Willems Van Dijk said. “The most important thing is that we continue to give people good information and easy access to the vaccine so they can make the best decision for them.”