MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers on Monday signed a bill that allows dentists to administer COVID-19 vaccinations, the same day that more than 2 million more people with preexisting conditions became eligible for shots.
Evers also defended health officials who recently updated data to show that nearly 1,000 more COVID-19 deaths occurred in long-term care facilities than initially reported. Those deaths were originally attributed to “unknown” housing setting, but changed during a review of the data.
The new law Evers signed allows dentists who complete eight hours of training on vaccine protocols and record keeping to administer shots . dentists in neighboring Minnesota and Illinois are already permitted to give the vaccine. Dentists could also administer the flu shot.
About 3,500 dentists in Wisconsin could be enlisted to help vaccinate.
Expanding who can vaccinate people came the same day that population of those eligible expanded by more than 2 million people to include those between age 16 and 64 with a wide array of preexisting conditions.
Qualifying conditions include moderate to severe asthma; cancer; diabetes; high blood pressure, Down syndrome; and being overweight with a body mass index of 25 or above. Women who are pregnant are also eligible.
State Department of Health Services Secretary Karen Timberlake urged people to be patient as they try to book vaccination appointments, warning some vaccinators may have waiting lists.
The general public will become eligible no later than May 1.
As of Sunday about a quarter of Wisconsin's population had received at least one dose of vaccine and about 15% had been fully vaccinated, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. As of Monday, 6,576 people have died from coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, and 2,938 of them were in long-term care facilities.
That number increased by nearly 1,000 last week after the state updated its data about where people who had died lived. The percentage of unknown places of residence decreased from 46% to 26%, while the deaths in long-term care facilities increased from 26% to 45%.
The change has led some Republican lawmakers to call for investigation by the state audit bureau. Wisconsin's five Republican members of Congress sent Evers a letter on Monday saying not accurately classifying the deaths earlier “obscured the truly dire situation in Wisconsin’s long-term care facilities.”
The Republican lawmakers — Reps. Tom Tiffany, Glenn Grothman, Scott Fitzgerald, Bryan Steil and Mike Gallagher — said had the information been correctly reported in real time, more resources could have been directed at long-term care facilities. They asked Evers for more information about what happened and the state's data reporting efforts.
Evers said at a news conference in Milwaukee on Monday that the state's response to the pandemic wouldn't have been any different had the data been more accurate because health officials know from the beginning that people in shared housing, like a nursing home, were at a higher risk of dying from the virus.
“Our local folks got lots of death certificates and death investigations that just had a street name on it. How do we know that is a nursing home?" Evers said at a vaccine clinic on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus. “We made sure we were on-site and helping those nursing homes from the get-go.”
Long-term care facilities include nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Other group housing facilities include prisons, homeless shelters, dormitories, and group homes.
“To me, it is important to have the right data, but if we had the right data, and we knew who was where, it wouldn’t have made any difference in our outreach because we were already there and working with those nursing homes,” Evers said.
Wisconsin state health officials said the change in classification came as part of a routine annual process to clean up data before it is reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State health officials matched the addresses of known long-term care facilities with those who have died, leading to the reclassification.