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COVID-19 update— Vaccine eligibility expands

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Good news hit Ohio this week. More vaccine doses are being shipped to the state than ever before, leading the state to expand the list of who is eligible for vaccination.

Starting on Thursday, March 4, vaccines were to be available for those 60 and older, those with certain medical conditions and those working in law enforcement, childcare and funeral services.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine hailed the development as a key to overcoming the health crisis that has gripped the state for the last year.

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“We’ve talked about being on offensive against the virus, and what puts us on offense really is having the vaccine,” he said at a briefing on Monday.

The FDA approval of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine over the weekend drove the influx of vaccine doses to the state. This week Ohio is set to get 448,390 doses, which is more than triple what it had been getting. That figure includes 96,100 new Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which only require one dose.

“This is, by far, the most doses — more doses than we received in any other week.” DeWine said. “We’re very excited about this.”

In other good news, President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday that vaccine production was ramping up nationwide. His administration estimates that vaccines will be available for every adult by the end of May, two months earlier than previous projections.

New eligible groups: 1C and 2

The new medical conditions part of Phase 1C are type 1 diabetes, pregnancy, bone marrow transplant recipients and ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Previously, only people who had been hospitalized for their diabetic condition were eligible. Meanwhile, ALS has been a qualifying medical condition as a severe neurological disease, but more clarity was requested from providers.

DeWine said he added the latest conditions to save more lives.

“These are medical conditions that increase the risk of severe outcomes or deaths from COVID-19 that aren’t covered in our age-based approach,” he said.

Speaking to the risk to those who are pregnant, DeWine noted that “two lives are at risk.”

Ohio Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff added to that characterization, noting that pregnant individuals have a higher risk of premature delivery, among other risks.

“Altough the actual risk is low, it is higher than for non-pregnant people of the same age,” he said at Monday’s briefing. “You’re at higher risk of being hospitalized in intensive care and of being put on a breathing tube.”

Vanderhoff additionally specified that those having bone marrow transplants for cancer or certain anemias are eligible, not those who received them for orthopedic issues.

Several new professions were also added as part of the 1C phase. They include childcare workers, funeral service employees, police officers, sheriff’s deputies, state highway patrol troopers, corrections staff and fire department employees previously not covered.

In response to a question from a reporter, DeWine confirmed at the briefing that inmates themselves are not eligible, only corrections officers. He added that he believes that step will help stem the introduction of the virus into jails and prisons, where it can spread quickly.

Yellow Springs police officers were vaccinated in December as part of the 1A phase before guidance was issued from the state clarifying that police were not considered first responders.

By phone this week, Mallisa Doster, executive director of the Yellow Springs Community Children’s Center, said she was excited to hear that her staff would be part of the next round of vaccinations. There are currently 15 employees at the local daycare and preschool, but Doster has not polled workers to see how many would elect to get the vaccine.

Doster also reported that the center has yet to record a single case of COVID-19 since reopening in June 2020. The center is not up to its previous enrollment level as it accepts new families incrementally.

“We are not fully enrolled yet,” she said. “We are slowly enrolling to ensure we can take on more kids and more germs.”

The new Phase 1C group includes 246,000 people. A more significant expansion is to those in the age range of 60–65, which kicks off Phase 2 — that adds 695,000 Ohioans to the list of those eligible for a vaccine. Those 65 and older have been eligible since Feb. 8.

DeWine said his largely age-based approach will continue as the state expands vaccine access in the coming weeks. According to state figures, 93% of all deaths have been among those 60 and older.

“Age is going to continue to be our dominant indicator,” DeWine said.

Though the state has not shared who will be eligible next for the vaccine, DeWine signaled that older Ohioans will continue to get priority.

“We’ll take it down as soon as we can to 55 [years old] and then 50,” he said. “Whether we add additional occupations, we have not, frankly, decided.”

DeWine added that he doesn’t anticipate waiting as long to expand access as he did after those 65 and older became eligible.

“We sat on 65 for close to a month,” he said. “I certainly don’t anticipate that we will be at 60 for a month.”

Vaccination rollout quickens

Additional vaccination sites are also coming online, including some Meijers and Walmarts and independent pharmacies. DeWine said at a briefing last week he’s aiming to send the Johnson & Johnson vaccines to small pharmacies, such as the one he frequented in his youth.

“When [my wife Fran and I] were growing up, we went to Erbaugh and Johnson’s Drugs in Yellow Springs, so we understand about independent, small pharmacies,” DeWine said.

This week, an employee at Yellow Springs Pharmacy, the successor to Erbaugh and Johnson’s, said that they have not heard from the Benzer corporate office whether they will receive any vaccines. However, Cedar Care Pharmacy in nearby Cedarville is now offering vaccine appointments.

Vaccines are currently available at 12 sites across the county, up from an initial seven locations at the beginning of the rollout. Statewide, vaccine providers have grown from 700 to 1,200.

Another factor in the recent expansion of eligibility was the completion of vaccinations for school employees. DeWine prioritized those workers in order to get as many students back into the classroom as possible. On Tuesday, President Biden urged states not prioritizing teachers to do so.

Last week, DeWine reported that 200,000 school personnel began the vaccination process last month. Yellow Springs school employees received their first Pfizer jab on Feb. 19 and are scheduled to get their next one on March 12.

According to figures DeWine presented this week, 68%  of all school districts are now in-person five days per week, 30% are attending on a hybrid plan, and 1.5% are fully remote. By comparison, 50% of all districts were fully online at the start of January.

Yellow Springs Schools started its hybrid plan on Monday, March 1. Elementary school students are attending two half-days in person and middle and high school students are in the classroom two full days each week. The Antioch School is back open for in-person school five days; its employees received their first vaccinations last month as well.

The state’s recent steps appear to be paying off. After lagging behind the rest of the country the last several months, Ohio is now on par with the U.S. per capita vaccination average of around 15% having received a first shot. Greene County is doing even better, with 16% of the population  at least partially vaccinated.

But vaccination is not proceeding equitably along racial lines. While 14% of white residents have received a vaccine, only 6% of Black Ohioans have received one. Access to healthcare and distrust of the medical system due to healthcare discrimination have been noted as factors in the discrepancy.

DeWine said last week the “bridge” to a future beyond the pandemic has two components: vaccines and continued mask-wearing. Both are essential to achieving herd immunity so that precautionary measures can be lifted.

“There is a point in the future where we get herd immunity, where we can take off the mask,” he said.

But not yet. Still, with 1.7 million Ohioans having received their first shot and 900,000 fully vaccinated, DeWine is optimistic.

“We’re moving forward,” he said.

In other COVID news:

• On Tuesday, March 2, the state lifted restrictions for some mass gatherings. Although the order prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people is still in effect, wedding  receptions,  funeral repasts,  proms and other  events at banquet facilities are allowed to go forward, provided mask and social distancing requirements are met. The 300-person limit on banquet centers has also been lifted.

Last week, the state loosened restrictions on sporting and entertainment venues. Sporting and entertainment events can reopen with a 25% maximum capacity indoors and a 30% maximum capacity outdoors as long as attendees wear masks and socially distance. The measures apply to stadiums, arenas, playing fields, tracks, speedways, golf courses, tennis, basketball and volleyball courts and open-air courses.

Greene County remains at the heat level “red,” or high incidence, with 190 cases per 100,000 people over the last two weeks, a figure that must drop to below 100 to trigger a change in alert level. Last week, four more counties in the state dropped below the threshold of high incidence, for a total of eight now at the “orange” level.

• Greene County averaged 15 new cases per day over the last seven days, which is the same rate the county was seeing in early September and mid-July. Cases have plunged more than 800% since their peak in early January.

Statewide, COVID-19 cases plateaued over the week after falling for seven straight weeks. Ohio is averaging just under 2,000 new cases per day, four times less than in mid-January. State authorities have noted that the positive impacts of vaccination and social distancing/mask wearing are at risk of being canceled out by the spread of more contagious variants of the disease. Last month, Vanderhoff said that the British variant, B.1.1.7, would become Ohio’s dominant strain around late March or early April.

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