State health officials are attempting to speed up the vaccination process.
When Chippewa County Health Department officials scheduled the first series of COVID-19 vaccinations for Jan. 6-8, they were unsure how quickly those slots would be filled by people who qualify for the first group of recipients, given trepidation about, and in some cases outward hostility toward, the new vaccine and other efforts to slow virus spread.
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However, the 200 available doses for healthcare workers and others included in Group 1A were all taken, they said, and demand for the vaccine continues to be strong.
On Wednesday, the health department offered another clinic to 100 healthcare workers not affiliated with hospitals and other larger employers administering the vaccine.
“Those slots filled up very quickly,” said Kristen Kelm, the department’s community health division manager. “We were very excited to see that.”
Debra Larson, of Chippewa Falls, was among those receiving her first dose of the vaccine Wednesday. Larson works as a nursing consultant in long-term care facilities and originally was told she might not be able to receive the vaccine for months.
“I was elated when I was told I could get it today,” Larson said shortly before receiving her vaccination. “It feels good to know you have some protection.”
County health officers across mostly rural northwest Wisconsin report similar high demand for the vaccine that protects against the coronavirus. Signups for the vaccine at health department clinics have outpaced available vaccinations in many locations, health officers report.
As of Friday, 518,251 positive cases of the virus have been confirmed in Wisconsin, and 5,322 state residents have died from COVID-19.
In St. Croix County, a vaccination registration form on the county website quickly filled, health officer Kelli Engen said. As of Wednesday, more than 1,800 people had signed up, a figure that topped 3,100 by early Friday afternoon. So far just over 1,000 county residents have received the vaccination.
The county is setting up a vaccination wait list that places people in different categories based on their age and health, she said.
“We are seeing quite a demand,” Engen said, noting her department held its first clinic Wednesday night during which it vaccinated 144 emergency medical service providers and others and inoculated 35 more the following day. “I am ecstatic at the responses we are seeing.”
Healthcare workers and others who are part of Phase 1A, such as EMS employees and nursing home workers and staff, are receiving the vaccine in Eau Claire County, where vaccinations total more than 5,500. The county’s health department Director, Lieske Giese, received the Moderna vaccine during a vaccination clinic Wednesday because her job requires she periodically interact with people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
“We see a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel by having an opportunity to get vaccines in arms, and we need to take full advantage of that,” Giese said during a press event Wednesday.
On Wednesday public health officials announced the first person in Wisconsin to have contracted a new, possibly more contagious strain of COVID-19 was from Eau Claire County. That fact and the ongoing pandemic are reasons why Giese and other health officers stressed the need to continue to wear face masks in public and be socially distant from others.
While the vaccine is effective at preventing the virus, it is not yet proven to reduce asymptomatic spread, public health officials said.
The vaccination process in Wisconsin has received criticism for proceeding too slowly. The federal government has failed to get vaccines the state in a timely fashion, and Gov. Tony Evers has called for that number to be increased.
The state ranked 10th-lowest in per-capita vaccine distribution last week, but DHS officials say the process is speeding up. As of Friday, 213,056 total doses have been given; 30,805 of those were second doses.
Vaccinations could continue to happen faster after President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office on Wednesday. Biden announced Thursday evening that he wants 100 million vaccines administered during his first 100 days in office as part of a $1.9 trillion recovery plan that includes provisions to hire more public health workers for contact tracing and vaccine outreach.
On Tuesday a Wisconsin advisory panel of health experts recommended that teachers, correctional workers and adults 70 and older be included in the next priority group, Phase 1B, to receive vaccinations. That process could begin as soon as next week, health officers said.
That would be welcome news to Chippewa County Health Department Director Angela Weideman. The number of vaccinations in her county has grown in recent days, she said, and now totals more than 2,000, up from about 500 last week. Her department plans to administer another 200 vaccinations on Wednesday.
Combining her department and other vaccine providers, Weideman said her goal is to offer at least 1,000 vaccinations weekly. As in other parts of Wisconsin, vaccinations are now being given by healthcare providers and some pharmacies as well as at her office.
Initially, Weideman said, some people objected to getting vaccinated. But some of those same people are now telling her they want the vaccine when it is available, she said.
“I think that is changing,” Weideman said of opposition to the vaccine. “People are sick of the pandemic. As more of them know people who got the vaccine and didn’t experience bad side effects, I think more people will be willing to get it. And in the end that is what we want, more people to be protected from the virus.”