Wisconsin officials, vaccinators ask for patience as 65+ population calls for vaccine appointments

MADISON, Wis. — Health officials at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services asked for patience on Thursday as they warned vaccine shipments from the federal government were unlikely to increase for at least three to four more weeks. Since the state announced that the 65+ year old population was eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine earlier this week, health care systems say they’re fielding a torrent of calls from patients asking when they’d be able to get theirs.

“We have definitely seen an influx of calls coming in,” Natalie Tollefson from Gundersen Boscobel Area Hospital and Clinics. “Not only to our health care organization…but also throughout our county.”

Wisconsin’s population of 65 years old and above numbers around 700,000 according to state officials, and the state made them all eligible for vaccines on Tuesday after an earlier recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to states that the group be included in the next phase of vaccinations.

“It’s been crazy,” Mohammad (Mo) Kharbat said, vice president of pharmacy services for SSM Health in Wisconsin. “So many people are reaching out.”

But eligibility doesn’t equal an instant shot in the arm, as the DHS made clear in their press briefing on Thursday. The state is currently receiving about 70,000 doses from the federal government weekly, and deputy secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said that their conversations with the federal government indicate that allocation is unlikely to increase for at least three to four weeks.

“This is going to take time,” Van Dijk said. “I know that asking for more patience is frankly a lot to ask. So today I’m going to ask for something a little bit different; today we’re asking for perseverance.”

People who are calling their pharmacies or health care providers and failing to get a vaccine appointment should wait a week or two, she said, and try again. With Phase 1A still unfinished and 1B set to expand early next week once the DHS releases their guidance for all eligible groups in the next phase, the need is only going to expand but the supply remains limited. Under the current recommendations from the state advisory board tasked with providing phase guidance to the DHS, phase 1A and 1B combined could ultimately include 45% of Wisconsin’s adults.

Vaccinations of the 65+ population have begun already, including shots given out at Unity Point-Meriter in Madison on Thursday. At SSM Health’s hospitals and clinics across the state, they estimate that 100,000 of their patients fall into the 65+ population bracket. If the state gave them the maximum number of doses they have the capacity to administer, they could vaccinate 20,000 a week and be done in four to six weeks, Kharbat said. That capacity would include the state’s approval of several more of their clinics as vaccinators, whose status is still pending.

“It’s now a process for us to reach out to our patients who are in this group to make sure that we can get them scheduled for the vaccine as soon as possible,” Kharbat said. “One of the ways we’re doing it is by expanding our vaccination site network.” They’ve opened their clinics in Sun Prairie and east and west Madison as vaccinators in addition to St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison; once additional clinics in other parts of the state are approved, those would open to vaccinations as well.

But 20,000 weekly doses from the state for a finished timeline of four to six weeks is unlikely, given the state’s allocations from the federal government. So far, Kharbat said SSM Health has delivered–in total–just under that amount since vaccinations first started in mid-December.

While SSM Health and other major health care system patients will be contacted by their providers, other systems like Gundersen in rural areas of the state are advising their patients to wait and watch their MyChart account for a scheduling notification in the days or weeks to come.

“We’re definitely asking the community for their patience,” Tollefson said. “We are trying our best to meet the need of the patient especially with the net being cast as wide as it has been.”