Most Oklahomans will soon be eligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine.
Beginning Tuesday, Oklahoma will expand vaccination eligibility to teachers, students and school staff outside of preK-12, including childcare facilities, state health officials announced during a virtual news conference on Monday afternoon. Staff and students of universities and vocational technology centers are included in that group.
Thousands of essential workers will also become eligible.
The groups join Oklahoma’s growing list of people who are currently able to be vaccinated, such as health care workers, people over 65, those with comorbidities and preK-12 teachers. The newly-eligible groups will kick off Phase 3 of the state’s four-phase vaccine distribution plan.
In Phase 4, all Oklahomans will be eligible.
Ten percent of Oklahomans were fully vaccinated as of Monday, according to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
“This is big. This is a big step,” said Deputy Health Commissioner Keith Reed. “When we look at the different phases, this means we are bringing on the vast majority of Oklahomans. So at this point, the vast majority of Oklahomans are eligible to be vaccinated.”
Last March, Gov. Kevin Stitt deemed dozens of industries essential, as business closures sweeped the state. Essential employees include those working in manufacturing, grocery stores, and restaurants.
Monday’s announcement came only days after state health officials on Friday announced they were expanding eligibility to more groups in Phase 2. Those groups, which became eligible on Monday, include staff and residents of congregate facilities such as prisons and homeless shelters. Elected officials and government leaders also became eligible.
State officials monitor the capacity for appointments daily, Reed said, and Monday had open appointments. That signaled that it was time to open up eligibility to more people.
“In this particular case we didn’t see any point in waiting another week, or two weeks or whatever. If we have some capacity that we can bring these groups on board, we want to do it, and do it now,” he said.
People seeking an appointment might have to wait a few days before they can find an available slot, Reed said.
“Our hope is people don’t struggle to find appointments, but at the same time we also want every vaccine to find an arm as soon as possible, so trying to strike that balance is important for us,” he said. “It may get tight for a little while as we work through this, but I don’t want anybody to step back and say, ‘Well I’m going to wait until it becomes a little easier to get an appointment.’
“Step up now and get your appointment. Step up now and get vaccinated.”
Those in previous phases can still make an appointment to receive a vaccine.
Oklahoma is administering the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and recently started giving the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. None of the vaccines are approved for children under the age of 16.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday morning released long-awaited interim guidance for fully vaccinated people. The new guidelines say vaccinated people can visit other vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or social distancing. People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after they receive the second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, or two weeks after the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.
Vaccinated people can also visit with unvaccinated people from another household, as long as those people are at low risk for getting severely sick with COVID-19. People should continue to wear masks in public, according to the guidance.
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Oklahoma are declining. Hospitalizations have decreased by 82 percent since they peaked on Jan. 5 at 1,994 patients, according to state health data. As of Friday, there were 367 people hospitalized, the lowest number since a surge began last summer.
The seven-day rolling average for new caes was at 611 on Monday, compared to a peak of 4,256 on Jan. 13.
Earlier this month, the Oklahoma State Department of Health changed the way it reports COVID-19 deaths, as its own staff fell behind and grew overburdened with investigations. The state now uses the Provisional Death Count from the CDC, which is based on death certificates.
As of Monday, 7,219 people had died.
Oklahoma was No. 7 in the U.S. for vaccines administered per 100,000 people as of Monday afternoon, according to the CDC. Oklahoma administered its first vaccine on Dec. 14.
“Obviously we have concerns about people dropping their guards too soon,” Reed said. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but there’s still some work to be done.”