Oklahoma will start allowing people with underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk of becoming severely sick with the coronavirus to receive a vaccine, state officials announced on Thursday. 

All PreK-12 educators and school staff such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers and janitorial staff will also be eligible. 

Appointments will begin to open Feb. 22, health officials said during a news conference on Thursday morning. About 1.1 million Oklahomans are estimated to be in the newly-eligible groups.

“This portion of Phase 2 will likely take some time to complete,” said Deputy Health Commissioner Keith Reed. 

As Oklahoma receives increased supply from the federal government, the state will open new access points across the state, Reed said. For now, supply remains limited. 

“Even if you are eligible, it may be some time before you’re able to get your appointment,” he said.

Those in previous eligibility groups can still make an appointment to receive a vaccine. Right now, Oklahoma is in Phase 2 of its distribution plan, vaccinating health care workers, adults over 65, and staff and residents of long-term health facilities. The state administered its first vaccine on Dec. 14.

As of Thursday, about 441,000 Oklahomans had received the first dose of the vaccine, and 167,000 had both shots, Gov. Kevin Stitt said. Oklahoma was No. 8 in the U.S. for shots administered per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Adults 65 and older were the latest to become eligible for the vaccine. State officials monitored vaccine administration in that group to determine when to move to the next phase, Reed said.

When including federal partners, such as Veterans Affairs and tribal health programs, about 56 percent of that population has been vaccinated, he said. 

“We’re really starting to get over the hump with the 65 plus group, and we’ve always been really clear that we don’t want to wait to exhaust the interest for a particular group before we move onto the next one,” Reed said. 

Vaccination clinics will be scheduled for school districts, Reed said. Districts should provide the state with information on how many staff members want the vaccine and when they’re available for the clinic to take place. 

Teachers and school staff were originally in Phase 3 of the state’s vaccine distribution plan, but Stitt moved the group to Phase 2 in December. The governor has said one of his top priorities is moving students back to in-person learning. Most schools have offered in-person learning, but Stitt has criticized those that haven’t.

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said allowing teachers and schools staff to get the vaccine as soon as possible is “critical.”

“While in-person school is more dependent on COVID mitigation strategies such as masks and social distancing, ensuring the vaccination of teachers is vital to keeping school doors open,” she said in a statement on Thursday.

Oklahomans with comorbidities include those who have hypertension, diabetes, obesity and Down syndrome. The group is expected to include more than 1 million people, Reed said. 

State officials plan to soon expand vaccine supply to “pandemic providers” such as primary care physicians, pharmacies, hospital systems and cancer centers. Those providers can decide whether patients have conditions that could increase their risk of severe illness, Reed said. 

“They know their patients best,” he said. “That’s one reason we want to get this within the healthcare system, to make a lot of those decisions… We’re not going to police that.”

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Oklahoma are declining. Hospitalizations have decreased by 56 percent since they peaked on Jan. 5 at 1,994 patients, according to state health data. 

The seven-day rolling average for new cases was at 1,762 on Thursday, compared to a peak of 4,256 on Jan. 13. 

Still, reported deaths continue to be high compared to the summer. In the past week, the state reported 267 fatalities. The state has reported 3,948 deaths since the pandemic started in March.

The high number of deaths is likely a result of the coronavirus surge in January, said Dr. Dale Bratzler, chief quality officer for OU Health. 

“A substantial number of the deaths occurring in people who have been hospitalized may have been hospitalized for weeks,” he said during a call with reporters on Thursday afternoon.