JVG_210401_SENIORS

A nurse administers a COVID-19 vaccine to another health care worker at Mercyhealth Hospital and Trauma Center, Janesville.

Three quarters of Rock County’s 65-and-older population has received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

What’s the significance of that milestone? Health officials say it’s already helping local health care systems.

State data shows 75.1% of seniors have at least begun the vaccine series. County health data shows 16,897 seniors have completed the series, meaning they have received two doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one dose of Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

Mark Goelzer, medical director at Mercyhealth, said having a majority of seniors vaccinated has started to ease the pressure on health care staffing and resources, which were squeezed during fall and winter when coronavirus activity reached its peak.

Mercyhealth has not had to reopen any of its expanded COVID-19 units in weeks, and it can operate with its existing number of negative pressure rooms, Goelzer said.

Health care workers also have started to see better health outcomes because of improved treatment for COVID-19, he said.

If trends persist, the county and state should see the death rate from COVID-19 continue to flatten, he said.

People ages 65 and older are the most vulnerable to serious illness and death from COVID-19. Of the 163 Rock County residents who succumbed to the disease, 85% were older than 60. The average age of those who died is 75.7 years old, according to county data.

Nursing home residents and staff were among the first to be vaccinated in winter after being hit hard by the pandemic nationwide.

Goelzer and Eric Thornton, president of SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville, said both health care systems have seen noticeable drops in the number of nursing home patients being referred to hospitals.

“The nursing homes in the area have been (vaccinated),” Goelzer said. “... And I think that’s been a saving grace.”

However, those improvements could reverse if people begin to relax too much, he said.

COVID-19 case activity and hospitalizations have crept upward in Rock County over the last two weeks, which could pose a serious threat because the community is nowhere near herd immunity, Goelzer said.

He said repercussions of increased case activity aren’t usually visible until weeks later. If today’s higher case activity gets worse, the community could see more deaths in late April.

Although most COVID-19 deaths have involved seniors, people younger than 65 still can get seriously ill and die.

“I have some significant concerns about spring break, as far as people traveling as much as they have been and going to places where not all people are wearing masks,” Goelzer said.

Daily increases in vaccinations for people ages 65 and older have started to slow in the last week, which could indicate an easing demand for shots.

The health department is working with the county’s vaccine advisory group to improve transportation for people with vaccine appointments, which is an issue some seniors might have, said epidemiologist Nick Zupan.

Health officials also are making an effort to expand vaccine access for people who are homebound, Zupan said.

State grants announced by Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday will aid vaccine outreach, including expanding transportation resources, according to a news release.

Inclusa, a family care organization, and The Hmong Institute both plan to use the grants to improve transportation in Rock County, according to the release.

Seniors who are vaccinated should continue to exercise caution when in public and in groups, Goelzer said. But they also can start to enjoy simple pleasures again, such as visiting with small groups of family members or with other people who are vaccinated.

“From a grandparent standpoint, it is OK to hug your grandkids and stuff,” he said. “But at the same time, I wouldn’t throw caution to the wind and assume it (the pandemic) is over.”

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