EAU CLAIRE — Starting today, people will no longer need to make appointments to get a COVID-19 vaccine at UW-Eau Claire’s Zorn Arena, though appointments are still encouraged, health officials announced Thursday.

It will be the first large-scale COVID-19 vaccination site in the Chippewa Valley to offer vaccines to people without registration or appointments.

Also for the first time, Eau Claire County’s chief health official said Thursday that appointments are “readily available at all our vaccine locations” in the county.

The Zorn Arena regional site opened April 8. It has the capacity to administer 700 doses per day. Appointments filled up last week, but some appointments were still unclaimed for today, Saturday and next week, said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

Giese said officials decided to open the Zorn Arena clinic to walk-ins because of those open appointments, and because they hope to get rid of potential barriers to the vaccine.

“Other vaccination locations around the state are doing this, and they see it as a strategy to get more people vaccinated,” Giese said.

The site at Zorn Arena, 121 Garfield Ave., will start accepting walk-ins when it opens at 3 p.m. today.

Giese encouraged people to still make an appointment in advance if they can — it will guarantee a dose will be available when they arrive — but said she hopes people who have trouble making an appointment can come as a walk-in.

Making an appointment “is the easiest, quickest and most reliable way to assure you have a vaccine available for when you arrive at Zorn Arena,” Giese said. “But we do want to decrease barriers.”

Vaccine supply and demand in Eau Claire County right now is about equal, Giese said Thursday at a press conference. The Health Department is working on strategies to make sure demand remains strong.

Opening vaccine clinics to walk-ins is one of those strategies, she noted.

“We also need to make sure we don’t waste doses. Certainly adding walk-ins to the mix, and making sure at the end of our clinic day we use all the doses in our vials, is critically important,” she said.

That’s why the Zorn Arena site won’t vaccinate walk-ins likely after 6:30 p.m., Giese said. Health care workers will complete their open vials of the vaccine before the end of the night, but they won’t open any additional vials after 6:30 p.m.

The Zorn Arena clinic is offering the Pfizer vaccine, which must be kept in cold storage. The vaccine must be thawed either in refrigerators or at room temperature before it can be administered, according to the CDC, and it can’t be re-frozen once it’s thawed.

The Zorn Arena clinic is currently open from 3 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.

People who get vaccinated at Zorn Arena will return there to get their second dose; they’ll schedule their second appointment when they get their first dose.

To schedule an appointment, visit the website vaccinate.wi.gov. People without internet access or who need help signing up can call 844-684-1064.

The Zorn Arena site will be expanding its hours later this month. Starting April 29, the site will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.

There is a large parking lot across from Zorn Arena that is usually reserved for UW-Eau Claire faculty, but parking spaces are available there for people going to the vaccination clinic.

People who want to get vaccinated at the site don’t need to show proof of insurance, ID or citizenship.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Wisconsin National Guard are assisting the Health Department and UW-Eau Claire staff to operate the site.

Appointments open and available

This week is the first time the Health Department has said vaccine appointments are broadly available.

Several weeks ago in late March, large health care organizations — Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire and Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire — said they had a waitlist for the vaccine, or were still working on vaccinating older populations.

As of this week, Marshfield Clinic Health System is now offering both Pfizer and Moderna vaccine appointments to everyone who's eligible in Wisconsin, including some same-day appointments, a Marshfield spokesperson said: "We are welcoming both patients and community members."

As of now, Giese said vaccine appointments are open: “It’s important to know you shouldn’t be on a waitlist. If you think you’re still waiting to hear about a vaccine, don’t wait anymore. Get a vaccine appointment.”

Everyone age 16 and older who works, lives or goes to school in Wisconsin is eligible for a free COVID-19 vaccine.

Prevea Health, which is operating the area’s other large vaccination site at Jacob’s Well Church, 3211 N. 50th Ave., Lake Hallie, also has appointments available.

“Prevea Health is fortunate to have a strong vaccine supply at this time, which means there are more appointments available at some of our locations such as Jacob’s Well,” a Prevea Health spokesperson said in a statement to the Leader-Telegram.

The Prevea clinic isn’t planning to vaccinate walk-ins currently, the spokesperson said. The spokesperson did not say if the Jacob’s Well site has administered fewer doses this week compared to recent weeks.

In Eau Claire County, 42% of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 29% are fully vaccinated.

The Health Department hopes that 80% of the county will eventually be vaccinated, since about 20% of county residents are under 16 and can’t yet get a vaccine, Giese said.

People who are fully vaccinated — two weeks after their final dose — can safely gather with other vaccinated people indoors without masks, Giese said. They can safely travel without a COVID-19 test and without quarantining if they show proof of vaccination, and don’t have to quarantine if they’re exposed to someone who has COVID-19.

Giese spoke of an unvaccinated sports team that had gathered recently.

“More than 14 people had to be quarantined who were close contacts on that sports team,” she said. “If they had been fully vaccinated, that sports season wouldn’t have been interrupted and disease spread would have been much less likely, with all those close contacts.”

To find a vaccine appointment in the Eau Claire County area, visit covid19eauclaire.org or call the county’s COVID-19 hotline at 715-831-7425.

J&J vaccines still on pause

All vaccinators in Eau Claire County have paused administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Giese said.

After six reported cases of rare, severe blood clots out of 6.8 million doses of the J&J vaccine given in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration this week recommended pausing administering the shot.

The state of Wisconsin and Eau Claire County immediately asked vaccinators to pause the J&J shot as well.

As of this week, just over 4,600 Eau Claire County residents had received the J&J vaccine.

“A reminder that this is a very, very rare side effect that’s been seen with J&J,” Giese said. “... We’re not aware of any cases of this happening in Wisconsin or in Eau Claire.”

The Health Department is asking people who received a J&J vaccine in the last three weeks to watch for specific symptoms: severe headaches, abdominal or leg pain or significant shortness of breath.

Blood clots haven’t been associated with either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

“They’re made using a different process, and the vaccines are really considered safe,” Giese said. “This is a pause (for) J&J. Please don’t let it discourage you from getting a vaccine.”

County’s virus trajectory flat

The trajectory of new COVID-19 cases in Eau Claire County is flat. It’s good news, Giese said, but “unfortunately the trajectory is growing in the region and the state. That’s concerning. It’s something we’re carefully watching.”

Fifty Eau Claire County residents this week tested positive for COVID-19, an average of seven per day. It’s under the Health Department’s goal of 10 cases per day.

A total of 11,361 county residents have ever tested positive for the virus, according to county data.

The county recorded its 105th COVID-19 death in March; it was the most recent death from the virus in the county.

Leader-Telegram reporter Andrew Dowd contributed to this report.

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

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.