MILWAUKEE — As we’ve made it into June, Wisconsin’s summer is quickly heating up. But across the state, enthusiasm for getting the COVID-19 vaccine seems to be cooling off.
What You Need To Know
- Vaccination rates have continued to decline in recent weeks, reaching their lowest point since January
- Wisconsin is shutting down mass vaccination sites in favor of community pop-ups and mobile clinics
- New CDC guidance and expiring local mandates have let vaccinated residents shed their masks
- COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all heading in the right direction
Demand for the shots is lagging, even as health officials work to make vaccines easier to get — and piling on more freebies for vaccinated Wisconsinites. Still, trends in the state’s infection rates are continuing to improve, and lots of residents are shedding their masks as local mandates end.
Here, we break down more of the latest news to know about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the Badger State.
Pace of shots in arms keeps slowing
In Wisconsin, more than 5.2 million shots have gone into arms, according to Department of Health Services data. But Wisconsin’s weekly doses have continued to slope downward since their peak in early April, when the state first opened up shots to the general public.
Last week, the state administered 86,520 doses — its lowest count since the beginning of January, when only health care workers and long-term care facilities were eligible. On the week of April 4, the total was nearly five times as high, at 425,801 doses.
Around 49% of Wisconsinites have gotten at least one dose, and around 43% have finished their vaccine series. According to a New York Times tracker, that still puts the Badger State ahead of the national average — but not by much.
After being a national leader earlier in the vaccine rollout, Wisconsin now falls in the middle of the pack of U.S. states in shots per capita.
As for who’s getting vaccinated at the highest rates, the same trends persist.
Older Wisconsinites are more likely to have gotten their shots: More than 83% of residents 65 and up have received at least one dose, the DHS reports, while the majority of those younger than 35 remain unvaccinated. Around 22% of kids aged 12 to 15 have gotten a shot since the state opened up Pfizer vaccines to this age group last month.
Black Wisconsinites still have the lowest vaccination rate of any racial group in the state — under a quarter of Black residents have gotten a dose, according to DHS data. White and Asian residents have the highest first-dose coverage rates, at around 45% each, the DHS reports.
Vaccination strategy shifts to smaller clinics — and more incentives
Across the country, mass vaccination sites — with their large-scale, all-hands-on-deck approach to getting shots in arms — are shutting down as demand has slowed. And Wisconsin is no exception.
The FEMA-run clinic at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee — which at its peak was able to give out 3,000 shots per day — shut down at the end of May as demand dipped. The Alliant Energy Center in Madison will follow suit later in June, wrapping up its vaccination and COVID-19 testing efforts.
Health officials in the state have emphasized that, after the early days of high demand, the vaccination strategy would shift to focus on “meeting people where they are.”
That’s not just a turn of phrase: The state has recently placed more emphasis on mobile vaccination clinics and pop-up sites at community hubs, making access as easy as possible even if it means averaging fewer doses at any given site.
“There’s been a lot of progress developing a system and environment right now where anyone who wants a vaccine can get a vaccine,” state epidemiologist Ryan Westergaard said at a May media briefing. “We’re continuing to work on lowering, reducing barriers to getting vaccines.”
Milwaukee recently scaled up its efforts to bring in-home vaccinations directly to some Medicare recipients who might have trouble getting to a clinic. And the DHS is also helping to help connect groups that want to hold onsite clinics — including employers, community programs and faith-based organizations — with vaccinators who can provide the shots.
Another big piece of the current vaccine puzzle: Encouraging more people to go out and get their shots. Part of that effort has meant crafting new incentives for those who can flash their vaccine card.
What started with Krispy Kreme donuts and free beer has kept scaling up. Summerfest passes, Brewers tickets, luxury sweepstakes and, well, more free beer have all been up for grabs for people who get their shots.
Westergaard added that building vaccine confidence through outreach is also key. According to a New York Times survey last month, Wisconsin has a bigger-than-average share of “COVID skeptics” — making up 18% of the population — who are the least likely to stick their arms out for a vaccine.
“We’ve got a good supply of vaccine,” Westergaard said. “We need to promote confidence in the vaccine process and the vaccine product.”
Over the course of May, Pfizer and Moderna — whose vaccines make up the vast majority of doses in Wisconsin — both applied for full FDA approval for their shots, which could also provide a boost if they’re approved in the coming months.
The two vaccines are currently available under an emergency use authorization, a quicker process in case of a public health crisis (like a pandemic). Though experts told ABC News we already have a lot of evidence that the vaccines are safe and effective, the full approval would be another official stamp of confidence — and one that’s important to around one-third of unvaccinated Americans, who say a full approval would make them more likely to get their shots, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
Masks come off for vaccinated Wisconsinites
After earlier, more specific guidance around how fully vaccinated Americans should act, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took a broader approach last month.
“If you are fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask,” President Joe Biden announced, summarizing the new CDC guidance. “Get vaccinated — or wear a mask until you do.”
CDC officials said, with the encouragement of shots proving very effective in the real world, they were giving the green light for fully vaccinated people — as in, those two weeks out from their last dose — to return to some degree of normalcy, outside and indoors.
The Badger State quickly backed the new guidance, with DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake encouraging vaccinated people to return “to the Wisconsin way of life we all enjoy.”
Wisconsin hasn’t had a statewide mask mandate since March, when the state supreme court struck down an earlier order from Gov. Tony Evers. But many local health departments still had mandates in place in their areas.
With the new CDC guidance, though, a lot of these smaller-scale mandates have also relaxed in recent weeks.
Milwaukee’s mask mandate expired on June 1; Dane County’s ended the following day. Officials from Eau Claire to Pierce County to Wauwatosa have all chosen to loosen their guidelines.
Local businesses can set their own guidelines, and some still require people to wear masks, or to provide proof of vaccination if they want to go unmasked inside.
“We should be very happy that thousands and thousands of people in the state of Wisconsin have been vaccinated and given us this chance,” Evers said after the new guidance was announced.
COVID-19 infections keep dropping
Wisconsin’s coronavirus numbers seem to be giving more real-world proof that the vaccines are working.
In June, the weekly case average has hit its lowest point in more than a year — matching up with levels from last spring, when the pandemic was first getting underway. In the fall, that weekly average climbed almost 50 times as high as its current rate.
COVID-related hospitalizations have also plunged, and daily deaths have hovered in the single digits for the past couple of months.
We’re seeing declines across the country, too: According to the CDC, the weekly case average decreased 94% from its peak in January to early June.
The pandemic isn’t over yet: The DHS still classifies all of Wisconsin’s counties as having “high” or “medium” disease activity, and the state’s goal of reaching 80% vaccine coverage still needs some work.
Westergaard stressed the importance of balancing optimism with honesty about where we’re at.
Wisconsin still has “a good long ways to go,” he stressed — but “in many ways, we’re in the best place we’ve been in a long time.”
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