Wisconsin is expanding coronavirus vaccine eligibility to at least 2 million more people later this month, including anyone 16 or older with common pre-existing medical conditions such as being overweight, pregnant or having high blood pressure, health officials announced Thursday.
People who don’t have pre-existing conditions that would qualify them as of March 29 or who haven’t otherwise qualified to get vaccinated yet are expected to become eligible sometime in May, the state Department of Health Services said.
“That's the biggest message I want everyone to hear,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the state health department, at a news conference. She and Gov. Tony Evers noted the progress being made, but also urged people to continue to be vigilant and wear masks, maintain a social distance, frequently wash hands and avoid gatherings.
“We are ready to turn the corner, we are ready to kick this pandemic to the curb and we are in great position to do it," Evers said. “We are not going to give up now.”
The long list of newly qualifying conditions to get vaccinated includes asthma; Type 1 or 2 diabetes; cancer; cerebrovascular disease; chronic kidney disease; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; cystic fibrosis; Down syndrome; heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies; a weakened immune system from solid organ transplant, blood or bone marrow transplant, immune deficiencies, HIV, use of corticosteroids, or use of other immune weakening medicines; liver disease; and neurologic conditions, such as dementia.
Those conditions were chosen because they increase the risk for severe illness, hospitalization or death from COVID-19, Willems Van Dijk said.
Because so many more people are going to be eligible, vaccinators may need to prioritize those who are at a higher risk, such as people with two or more conditions, older people, or those in communities that are disproportionately affected by the virus, the health department said.
The number of people who could qualify might be closer to 3 million, Van Dijk said, noting the difficulty of estimating crossover between people who have already been vaccinated and also have a newly qualifying condition. For example, the health department estimates that more than 3 million adults in Wisconsin are have a BMI above 25 which qualifies them to be vaccinated, but an unknown number of them have already received it.
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business group, faulted the state for not included manufacturing workers in the next eligibility group and said it was unfair for them to potentially have to wait until May.
“Unlike some businesses, the hard-working and dedicated ‘shop floor’ employees of manufacturing companies haven’t been able to work remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic," said the group's president Kurt Bauer.
Willems Van Dijk said many of those workers will qualify based on other criteria, like underlying health conditions.
The hope is to vaccinate everyone who wants it by the end of June, Willems Van Dijk said.
“This is going to be the point where there’s lots of vaccine, lots of demand, and we needs lots of vaccinators to provide it," she said.
The widening of the eligibility criteria comes as virus-related restrictions are loosening around the state and country. Madison Metropolitan School District, the state's second largest, announced Thursday a phasing in of in-person classes, with everyone returning by April 27. Kindergarteners were the first to return this week.
Teachers have been prioritized for the vaccine in Madison and throughout the state as part of the most recent eligibility group.
Nearly 65% of people age 65 or older have been fully vaccinated in Wisconsin, and more than 20% of the population has received at least one dose, according to state and federal data. As of Thursday, more than 1.1 million people in Wisconsin had received at least one dose and more than 647,000 were fully vaccinated.
Meanwhile, the seven-day average of new positive cases was at 363, the lowest it's been in nine months as hospitalization rates have also steadily declined.
“All of this is very good news,” Willems Van Dijk said.