Wisconsin passed 600,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, a depressing marker that comes as demand for the vaccine slows and more doses go to waste.
The state also recorded 11 more deaths from the disease, pushing its pandemic total to 6,850.
“It’s almost impossible to understand the impact of those numbers," Julie Willems Van Dijk, the deputy secretary of the state Department of Health Services, said during a conference call. She called surpassing 600,000 cases a “grim milestone.”
As is the case in some other states, Wisconsin's rate of people getting vaccinated is slowing, as those most committed to getting immunized have already done so. As of Tuesday, 43.5% of the population — more than 2.5 million people — had received at least one vaccine dose and just shy of 35% was fully vaccinated. After steadily increasing since the vaccine became available in December, the number of total doses delivered has been dropping each week since early April.
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“You climb a mountain and then you go on a plateau," Van Dijk said. ”We will continue to climb this mountain whether we are on the steepest end or we are on the plateau until everyone in Wisconsin who wants a vaccine receives a vaccine."
Every community clinic in the state now offers walk-up vaccinations, with no appointment necessary, Van Dijk said. As demand has ebbed, it's become harder to find people who want to take unused doses, she said.
When vaccinations began, hundreds of doses were lost each week. That figure has risen to between 1,000 and 2,000 doses per week, Van Dijk said.
“We need to continue to make vaccine more accessible to people,” she said.
In light of slowing vaccinations nationwide, President Joe Biden on Tuesday set a new vaccination goal to deliver at least one dose to 70% of adult Americans by July 4, down from a goal of 80%. Biden's administration is for the first time moving to shift doses from states with weaker demand to areas with stronger interest.
The U.S. is currently administering first doses at a rate of about 965,000 per day — half the rate of three weeks ago but almost twice the pace needed to meet Biden’s target. Wisconsin has the 20th highest rate of people who have received at least one dose.
Van Dijk said in March that if vaccination rates remained high, Wisconsin could reach 80% vaccination by the Fourth of July holiday. But on Tuesday, echoing comments from the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Antony Fauci, she said the focus should not be on what percentage of vaccination is needed to reach herd immunity, but on just getting people inoculated.
“My hope continues to be that we’ll see robust acceptance of the vaccine going forward," Van Dijk said.
The Food and Drug Administration is expected to authorize the Pfizer vaccine for adolescents ages 12-15 by early next week.
The state is working with vaccinators to make sure shots are available at pediatricians' offices, as well as at schools and other community-based clinics that will be easily accessible to newly eligible children, Van Dijk said.