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Michigan expands vaccine eligibility

This July 2020 photo provided by Johnson & Johnson shows a vial of the Janssen COVID-19 vaccine.

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan announced Wednesday that everyone ages 50 to 64 can start getting COVID-19 vaccinations on March 22 and that those in that group with certain medical conditions can begin being immunized next week.

It is the largest expansion of eligibility since Jan. 11, when state officials allowed vaccinations of seniors age 65 or older and additional frontline workers such as teachers. The announcement came a day after President Joe Biden said the U.S. expects to take delivery of enough coronavirus vaccine for all adults by the end of May, two months earlier than previously expected.

Starting Monday, two new priority groups will be eligible: 816,000 people age 50 or older with medical conditions or disabilities, and caregiver family members and guardians who care for children with special health care needs. More than 20 underlying health conditions qualify, including common ones such as high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma and obesity.

All people ages 50 to 64 — 2 million total — will be eligible two weeks later, though 13% already have gotten at least one shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine because they qualify for another reason.

“The more people we can get the safe and effective vaccine, the faster we can return to a sense of normalcy,” Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement. “I urge all eligible Michiganders to get one of the three COVID-19 vaccines to protect you, your family and your community.”

As of Monday, 44% of Michiganders age 65-74 and nearly half of those 75 and up had received at least one dose. Federal regulators over the weekend cleared a third vaccine, produced by Johnson & Johnson, which works with one dose instead of two.

Some questioned the decision to open eligibility, saying providers such as county health departments are struggling to vaccinate people who already qualify due to limited supply.

“We need to get through the senior population,” said Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, a Democrat who complained that the state didn’t check with local authorities before deciding to expand eligibility. “Why aren’t we making sure we get through the bulk of those folks before we start moving into other categories?”

State Department of Health and Human Services Department spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said people age 65 and up remain a priority, as the group accounts for 80% of Michigan’s more than 15,500 confirmed coronavirus-related deaths. There initially may be waitlists for people ages 50 and older, she said.

The state wants to vaccinate 70% of people 16 and up, or 5.6 million, by year’s end. Agricultural and food-processing workers became eligible this week.

By expanding eligibility to the age 50-64 population, officials further shifted to an age-based approach. Previous guidance called for next vaccinating more “essential workers” in manufacturing, public transit, grocery stores, non-hospital laboratories and the U.S. Postal Service, along with 16- to 64-year-olds with preexisting health conditions or disabilities.

“We are pleased to expand eligibility for more people to get vaccinated as we continue to focus on our most vulnerable and those at highest risk of severe illness due to COVID-19,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive.

The Small Business Association of Michigan, which, along with other business groups, advocated for a simpler eligibility system to prioritize those most at risk, applauded the move and urged people to get vaccinated.

“Widespread vaccine administration will be the key to ending this pandemic,” said Brian Calley, the organization’s president.

More than 1.4 million people have received at least one dose — 18% of the state’s 8 million people age 16 and above. Michigan expects to get 492,000 doses this week, which would be the most to date.

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