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Vaccine roll out struggles faced by rural health care systems

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BLACK RIVER FALLS, Wis. (WQOW) – Several more groups of Wisconsinites will soon be eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Tuesday, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services announced the next phase of vaccinations will go to an array of essential workers: education and child care, individuals enrolled in Medicaid long-term care programs, some public-facing essential workers, non-frontline health care essential personnel, and facility staff and residents in congregate living settings.

State health officials said these new groups will be eligible once half the population of phase 1-B is vaccinated.

The tentative start date for this phase is March 1, however, some rural western Wisconsin health care systems are finding it difficult to stay on track as the eligible population grows.

At Black River Memorial Hospital in Jackson County, getting COVID-19 vaccines into people’s arms is getting more and more difficult as a bigger population is now set to be eligible.

“We don’t really have the opportunity to increase our staffing, we’ve already increased it for our response to COVID,” said the hospital’s president and CEO, Mary Beth White-Jacobs.

White-Jacobs said the logistics of living in a rural area make it difficult to get the community vaccinated in a timely manner before the next phase rolls out.

“It may be their [employees] one and only day off and they might live an hour away from the hospital,” White-Jacobs said. “Once you mix that vial of vaccine up, you’ve gotta give all 10 doses that are in there. And if you can’t get the employees in, then it starts to become a little bit of a struggle.”

White-Jacobs noted the biggest problem is the lack of vaccines allotted each week, which is currently around 70,000 statewide.

Officials from the Wisconsin Department of Health said in some parts of the state, rural vaccine distribution is actually more efficient than in populated areas because there are fewer people to vaccinate.

“I know it varies from community to community and resource to resource, how many staff are in their local health department, how many staff are in their local healthcare system,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk, the deputy secretary for the Wisconsin DHS.

But for communities like Black River Falls, the DHS is making sure there are additional resources to keep the distribution process on track.

“However, one of the things that we have done to supplement every community, whether they’re very small or big, and have the needs met to increase vaccination is the new mobile vaccination teams that we just launched last week,” Willems Van Dijk said. “And this is very similar to the test teams we put together earlier in the pandemic to support enhancing health systems and public health across the state.”

Those mobile vaccination teams can be requested by local health departments needing further distibution assistance.

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