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Nurse Heather Bentley administers a COVID-19 vaccine to Christopher Hammer at Mercyhealth Hospital and Trauma Center in Janesville.

JANESVILLE

Mercyhealth and SSM Health have begun reaching out to patients ages 65 and older about COVID-19 vaccines, which will be available for that age group starting Monday.

However, it is currently unclear how people of that age group will get vaccinated if they are not connected with a major health care system.

The state announced Tuesday that people ages 65 and older will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines beginning Monday, but there is no centralized system for getting vaccines to people in that group.

During a media call Tuesday, state health officials suggested that people ages 65 and older contact the sites where they typically get flu shots, such as their doctor’s office or pharmacy, to see if they will have COVID-19 vaccinations available soon.

Officials recommended that people search for vaccine availability online before making phone calls. Phone lines have been jammed in other states when people called about vaccines en masse, they said.

Walgreens and CVS Pharmacy—this area’s primary pharmacy providers—indicate on their websites that vaccines are not yet available in stores, and there was no way to schedule appointments as of Tuesday afternoon.

State officials also recommended contacting local public health departments to ask about vaccine options.

A Rock County Public Health Department official said in November that the health department does not plan to administer the vaccine unless “absolutely necessary.”

“The health department’s role will be to ensure that everyone in the community has access to the vaccine when it is available,” Jessica Turner, a local health department spokeswoman, said in an email to The Gazette.

Rock County has assembled a vaccine advisory panel, but it is not clear whether the group has addressed community vaccine distribution. The group has met privately and has issued no public communication.

Turner told The Gazette on Tuesday that the health department learned about the expansion to the 65-and-older group when the public did. She said she would offer more information as soon as she could, but The Gazette has not yet received any information from the health department regarding vaccine availability.

During Tuesday’s media call, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter said other health departments have reported the same lack of communication from the state about expanded vaccine availability.

Getting the vaccine to the state’s oldest residents will take time, state officials said.

Ideally, most Wisconsin residents ages 65 and older will be vaccinated within the next couple of months, said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the state Department of Health Services.

The state has about 700,000 residents who are 65 and older. So far, it has received about 70,000 vaccine doses per week, Willems Van Dijk said.

An estimated 5,825 Rock County residents have received their first doses of the vaccine since late December, and 3,088 residents have received both doses, according to the county health department.

Both federally approved vaccines require two doses about three or four weeks apart, depending on the manufacturer.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 17% of Rock County’s population is 65 or older, meaning there are about 28,000 residents within that age group. At Rock County’s current vaccination rate, it will take about 13 weeks to vaccinate 28,000 people.

However, other factors can affect how quickly the county vaccinates older residents, including changes in supply, inclusion of other populations, the addition of vaccine providers and how quickly providers set up appointments with people.

Some of those 28,000 residents have or will receive COVID-19 vaccines from a nursing home or assisted living facility.

State officials are comparing the vaccine rollout to the introduction of COVID-19 testing last spring. At first, tests were available only for select people and mostly by appointment at a doctor’s office. Eventually, testing supplies increased along with resources and testing locations.

Vaccines eventually will be available at several locations for anyone who wants them, but that will take months as the state awaits more vaccine doses from the federal government, officials said.

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