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A vial of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine is prepared at an Eau Claire vaccination clinic for front-line health care workers in November.

EAU CLAIRE — People 70 and older, police officers, firefighters, teachers and people living in shelters or congregate living facilities could be the next groups in Wisconsin tapped to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

A state advisory committee this week recommended that people 70 and older be prioritized to receive the vaccine next, as part of Phase 1B. (The committee estimated that would include around 682,000 people.)

Of all of Wisconsin’s deaths and hospitalizations from the virus, 71% have been in people 70 and older, the committee noted.

But the recommendations for Phase 1B have not been finalized as of Thursday. The state Department of Health Services has yet to officially designate which groups will next be offered the vaccine.

The state is still currently vaccinating people in Phase 1A, about 550,000 health care workers and nursing home staff and residents.

Prioritizing the elderly is vital because they face the largest risk factor for COVID-19 complications, but because the state is shipped a limited amount of weekly doses from the federal government, it will try to stagger the age ranges who can next get vaccinated, said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

“The intent with the state talking about the 70-year-old-plus age group … is really to say, let’s phase this in so the volume of vaccines we can receive is more likely to match that age group,” Giese said. “In Wisconsin we have a very large portion of our population over 65 … by starting at 70, the thinking is, we’d phase that in a bit more slowly.”

Also among the committee’s recommendations for vaccination in Phase 1B: About 28,000 people in prisons and correctional workers; about 160,000 teachers and childcare providers; about 25,000 non-front-line health care workers; people in emergency shelters and housing for those with disabilities; and about 300 mink husbandry workers.

Mink husbandry workers could be included in Phase 1B because international outbreaks related to mink farms “have resulted in genomic changes of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” the committee wrote, saying that those changes are “concerning and pose a biosecurity risk” to the vaccine campaign.

Wisconsin’s roughly 30,000 police and fire workers will also be offered vaccines during Phase 1B, Evers’ administration announced this week.

Public-facing police and fire workers in Eau Claire County will be vaccinated “next as we have vaccine available,” Giese said Thursday. Local EMS workers have already been vaccinated as part of Phase 1A, she noted.

Another group included in Phase 1A — Chippewa Valley nursing homes and assisted living facilities — are being vaccinated through a federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens’ pharmacies.

Who will be in Phase 1C, and when the general public can expect to get the shot, is still up in the air.

“There is no waiting list for vaccination, and we know that that question has come up frequently,” she said. “We are asking for people to be patient. Understand we are in as much hurry as all of you are to get vaccines to people.”

The Health Department will inform the next local groups when they’re eligible to get the vaccine, and plans to post information about vaccine eligibility on its website next week, Giese said.

If the state decides to adopt the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations, Phase 1C could include other essential workers, people 65 and older and people 16 and older with high-risk medical conditions — about 1.7 million Wisconsin residents, according to DHS documents.

DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said Monday that the general public not included in Phases 1A, 1B or 1C will likely be able to get a vaccine starting in spring or early summer.

The state anticipates moving into Phase 1B before the end of January, Van Dijk said last week.

County seeing consistency in new case numbers

Nearly 7,750 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been given in Eau Claire County as of Thursday, according to figures from the state.

A week ago, the Health Department said it had given out 2,700 doses.

The number of new, daily COVID-19 cases in Eau Claire County remains fairly stable, as it has since early December — an average of around 50 new cases per day.

The Health Department has said its goal is 10 cases per day or fewer.

Deaths in the county are also staying consistent, though hospitalizations are up.

An average of one county resident has died of COVID-19 per day in January so far.

Seven county residents died of the virus in the last week, and another eight the week before.

Fourteen county residents were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the last week, according to Health Department data. Seven were hospitalized the week before.

Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire has seen a decrease in COVID-19 patients compared to November and December levels, said Dr. Richard Helmers, regional vice president of Mayo Clinic Health System’s northwest Wisconsin region.

“But we can’t let down our guard,” Helmers said Thursday at a press briefing. “ … I think everybody eligible for the vaccine should have it. The vaccine gives us hope … that we are at the beginning of the end of this.”

Temporary changes are on the horizon for COVID-19 testing sites in Eau Claire.

A Wisconsin National Guard-staffed site at Peace Church, 501 E. Filmore Ave., will be closed Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. That testing site is free and is typically open Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays.

A rapid-testing site run by UW-Eau Claire at Memorial High School is set to end Jan. 20.

“Testing remains stable but fairly low, about 475 tests a day,” Giese said, adding that the Health Department is asking anyone with any degree of COVID-19 symptoms to get a test.

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.