Wisconsin health officials have decided to make COVID-19 vaccinations available for the general public starting next week, accelerating the timetable by a month, Gov. Tony Evers said Tuesday.
The move comes as Evers' administration braces for another surge in infections and a court order that could wipe out the governor's statewide mask mandate.
Currently, health care workers, people over 65, nursing home residents and staff, educators and people with existing health conditions are eligible for coronavirus vaccines. That will expand to everyone 16 and older starting Monday, Evers announced.
“We still have a heck of a long way to go to get everyone vaccinated,” Evers said during a news conference. “But every day we are closer than yesterday in getting back to our Wisconsin way of life. I know I'm not alone in feeling the hope, excitement and relief. ... We are this close to the finish line.”
State health officials had planed to open up vaccinations to the general public on May 1. But case rates in Wisconsin have been rising over the past two weeks, mirroring a national rise in infections.
Meanwhile, the state's conservative-leaning Supreme Court is scheduled to rule Wednesday on whether Evers' mask mandate is legal. The court struck down Evers' stay-at-home order last spring, which doesn't bode well for the mask mandate's fate. An order invalidating the mandate wouldn't touch local mask orders, but Evers would lose one of his last remaining tools to curb the virus' spread statewide.
Asked during the news conference why the state decided to accelerate vaccinations for the general public, Department of Health Services Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk made no mention of the uptick in cases or the looming court decision. She said the department is confident in the Biden administration's long-range estimates of vaccine supply for the state, 75% of those over age 65 have received at least one dose and more than 1 million people have completed their vaccinations.
“There aren't that many more people left to put in the mix,” she said. “This really simplifies the whole scenario for our vaccinators and the public.”
She acknowledged later in the news conference that Wisconsin is seeing warning signs of a surge, noting the seven-day case average stood at 501 on Tuesday, up from 363 on March 11.
Also Tuesday, state health officials announced that seven more pharmacy chains will receive vaccine this week as part of the federal retail pharmacy program. They are Costco; CVS; Hy-Vee; Good Neighbor and AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation; Health Mart; Medicine Shoppe and Cardinal Health; and Topco. The Community Pharmacy Enhanced Services Network, which includes some Hometown Pharmacies, and Walmart will receive additional doses, allowing them to offer vaccinations at more locations.
A number of pharmacy chains in Wisconsin already participate in the federal program, including CPESN and Walmart; Kroger, Managed Health Care Associates; Meijer; and Walgreens.
The state health agency said 595 pharmacies will be able to order nearly 95,000 first doses through the federal government. That's on top of the state's total allocation and will include the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
CVS will start scheduling appointments Tuesday with Costco following suit by Friday. People can locate participating pharmacies and schedule appointments by visiting the CVS, Costco or Hy-Vee websites or by calling local pharmacies in the other chains. People also can find participating pharmacies and schedule appointments through the state health department's website.