Updated at 3:44 p.m.
California will expand vaccine eligibility to all residents 50 and older starting April 1 and to those 16 and older starting April 15, state officials announced Thursday.
"In just a few weeks, there will be no rules, no limitations as it relates to the ability to get a vaccine administered," Gov Gavin Newsom said at an event in Orange County.
The move comes as California is expected to receive 2.5 million vaccine doses per week starting in April, up from 1.8 million currently.
“We are even closer to putting this pandemic behind us with today’s announcement and with vaccine supplies expected to increase dramatically in the months ahead," California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in a statement. "However, we are not there yet. It will take time to vaccinate all eligible Californians. During this time, we must not let our guard down. It is important that we remain vigilant, continue to wear masks and follow public health guidance.
The change would allow California to open up vaccines to all residents before President Joe Biden's May 1 goal.
But while California has administered more doses than any other state, the pace of vaccination has lagged behind other states.
As of Thursday, around 26% of residents had received at least one dose of a vaccine and 13% were fully vaccinated. Even with the expanded access, state officials expect it will still take several months to vaccinate all Californians who choose to get the shots.
The state has also struggled to vaccinate those communities most impacted by the virus. Only 3% of all vaccines administered have gone to Black Californians, according to the state’s vaccine dashboard. About 6.5% of the state’s population is Black, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau. And just 19% of the shots have been given to Latinx residents, despite that group making up nearly 40% of the population, according to the census.
State health officials said they will continue to work to vaccinate people in hard-hit communities and high-risk jobs before eligibility opens wider next month, including working with labor groups and community organizations, and by allowing providers to target certain zip codes through its MyTurn vaccine signup app.
Earlier this month, California announced it would set aside 40% of all vaccine doses to those hard-hit areas, defined as neighborhoods in the bottom 25% of its Healthy Places Index, which assesses Census tracts based on measures related to the health and socio-economic condition of residents.
As part of that, Newsom said that starting Thursday vaccine distributors in those areas would have the ability to vaccinate family members of anyone currently eligible for a vaccine.
In those areas, "If someone comes in eligible under the existing rules but with a family member, we will accommodate the family member no question asked," Newsom said.
Many Californians have faced difficulty finding information of whether they are eligible for vaccination and how to receive them. While the state entered into an agreement with Blue Shield to manage the vaccine rollout, many counties have yet to switch to the new system.
Some counties have already changed their vaccine eligibility. Butte County opened up vaccines for all residents 50 and over and this week discussed moving to 16 and older. Tuolumne County has opened eligibility to all residents 45 and older.
The state has seen COVID-19 cases slow, averaging 2,708 cases a day over the past week, down 34.1% from two weeks ago. A number of counties have moved into less-restrictive tiers in the state's COVID-19 reopening system — only 6% of the entire state is in the most-strict purple tier.
Newsom hinted Thursday that the state would be working on a "green tier," something that hasn't existed in the state's plan previously.
"We're well on our way to a green tier in a foreseeable future," the governor said. "These are encouraging signs, but we're mindful."
Still, Newsom noted that a number of coronavirus variants are active in the state, including a West Coast variant that originated in California.
"These mutations should make us mindful of the moment we're in. This is not mission accomplished," Newsom said. "The most potent and powerful thing you can do is continue to wear a face covering and let us work through the next number of weeks until we get to that place of abundance, moving us away from a scarcity mindset where we can meaningfully reopen the economy without the kind of modifications we're currently experiencing."
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