Gov. Tony Evers signed a bill into law Monday that allows dentists to administer COVID-19 and flu vaccines in Wisconsin, legislation aimed at getting more shots into arms amid the waning COVID-19 pandemic.
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 Republican-authored bill allows dentists to administer the vaccines if they complete certain requirements, such as completing an eight-hour course of study and training on vaccine storage, protocols, administration technique, emergency procedures and record keeping, as well as have liability insurance.
About 3,500 dentists in Wisconsin could be enlisted to help vaccinate. The bill signing came on the same day more than 2 million more people between the ages of 16 and 64 with preexisting conditions became eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations.
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 state health department.
“Wisconsin has been consistently at the top as a leader in the nation in getting available shots in arms, and that’s in part because Wisconsinites are always ready to roll up their sleeves and help,” Evers said in a statement. “It’s all hands on deck and dentists have the right knowledge and experience to get shots in arms quickly and safely, and we know we can use their help to get this done and to put the pandemic behind us.”
The law also requires dentists to update the Wisconsin Immunization Registry within seven days of administering a COVID-19 or flu vaccine, and it prohibits dentists from administering vaccines to children under the age of 6 unless it is prescribed and they have completed specific training to do so.
The bill is the eighth piece of legislation Evers has signed into law so far this session, compared to zero at this point in the first year of his term in 2019.
As of Monday, 6,576 people in Wisconsin have died from coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, with 2,938 of them 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 an 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 if the information had 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 knew 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 UW-Milwaukee campus. “We made sure we were on site and helping those nursing homes from the get-go.”
Wisconsin state health officials said the change in classification came as part of a routine annual process to clean up data before it’s reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State health officials matched the addresses of known long-term care facilities with people who died, leading to the reclassification.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
6 lives disrupted: How COVID-19 changed Madison
The torrent of disruption to daily life over the past year has been inescapable.
Calendar squares filled with weddings and events cleared. Vacations vanished. Schools shuttered and hand sanitizer was in short supply. We learned new words, like social distancing, herd immunity and doomscrolling.
COVID-19 affected every person, every family. It's taken nearly 6,500 Wisconsinites from us, including 278 in Dane County.
Here are six stories from people whose lives and jobs changed over the past year.
“Reporting the death counts out day after day was draining,” she said. “It felt like I was announcing a funeral every day.”
"I was getting my work done from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. every day," she said.
Rev. Marcus Allen knew what bringing everyone together could do for their spiritual and mental health. But each time he considered reopening the church, COVID-19 cases surged.
"We’re used to taking whatever comes through the door," said nurse Maria Hanson, who started journaling about the pandemic soon after treating the patient.
"It’s a risk vs. reward thing and I risk my life to save others," said Brandon Jones, who always worried about bringing the virus home to his wife and two kids.
“Usually a funeral is a major step in understanding that a life was lived and the person is now gone,” he said. “If families don’t get that, it’s just really hard.”