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Nurse Debbie Spielmann administers a COVID-19 vaccine to Jackie Doyle at Mercyhealth Hospital and Trauma Center, Janesville.

Expanded eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines, announced Tuesday by the governor, will help efforts to get people vaccinated and stop the spread of coronavirus, local health officials say.

Gov. Tony Evers announced Tuesday that all Wisconsinites 16 and older will be eligible to receive vaccine beginning Monday.

State health officials had planned to open up vaccinations to the general public May 1, but case rates have been rising over the past two weeks, mirroring a national rise in infections.

The expanded eligibility will help get people vaccinated by eliminating questions or concerns about whether or not they are eligible, said Jessica Turner, Rock County public health communications specialist.

“I think that our providers are going to be very excited with this announcement that everyone will be eligible,” Turner said.

The change will remove more challenges than it creates, Turner said, but there will still be wait times for some people to get vaccine appointments.

Some providers might continue to prioritize certain vulnerable or highly exposed populations, she said.

Eric Thornton, president of SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville, said people should be patient when looking for vaccine appointments.

Current appointment schedules were built to accommodate previous eligibility criteria, so finding an appointment could take time, he said.

Department of Health Services Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk made no mention of the recent statewide uptick in COVID-19 cases or the looming court decision on Evers’ mask mandate when asked during a news conference why the state decided to accelerate vaccinations for the general public.

She said the department is confident in the Biden administration’s long-range estimates of vaccine supply for the state. She said 75% of those older than age 65 have received at least one dose, and more than 1 million people have completed their vaccinations.

In Rock County, 43,941 people—26.9% of the population—have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, according to state data. That includes about 75% of the county’s senior population.

Van Dijk 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.

Rock County is no exception. Active and confirmed cases of the disease increased from 126 on March 19 to 211 on Tuesday, according to the health department.

Eight people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in Rock County as of Tuesday afternoon, double the number of people hospitalized on March 19, according to the data.

The county reported one new COVID-19 death Tuesday, bringing the total to 164.

Meanwhile disparities in vaccine access continue for people of different races and ethnic groups.

In Rock County, 15.2% of Asian people, 9% of Black people and 7.5% of Hispanic people have received at least one dose of vaccine.

In comparison, 25% of the white Rock County population has been vaccinated, according to state data.

The state reports 8.2% of Rock County vaccine recipients are of unknown race and 3.1% are considered “other race,” according to state data.

Opening up eligibility will reduce barriers for those working to ensure equitable access to vaccine, Turner said.

Also Tuesday, state health officials announced 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 Corp.; 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.

Vaccines have been approved for emergency use by the federal Food and Drug Administration for adults 18 and older. The vaccine created by Pfizer is the only one approved for teenagers age 16 and 17.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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