State officials announced another expansion to COVID-19 vaccine eligibility Wednesday as more supply becomes available.

After expanding eligibility to Hoosiers 55 and older Tuesday, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced during his weekly press conference Wednesday that the state again expanded eligibility to Hoosiers 50 and older.

Additionally, Holcomb announced all teachers and staff in K-12 schools and childcare providers in Indiana and across the country regardless of age are now eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program (FRPP).

FRPP is outside of the state’s vaccine program and eligibility requirements, and according to the CDC website is being operated in Indiana by Walmart, Kroger and Meijer pharmacies at this time. Teachers 50 years old and older could opt to schedule appointments either through the state system or the FRPP, Holcomb said.

According to the state’s vaccine clinic map, the only FRPP site currently operating in Grant County is the Marion Walmart, and appointments need to be scheduled through the Walmart website rather than the state website.

Marion Community Schools (MCS) Superintendent Brad Lindsay said Wednesday afternoon he was thankful to hear that school employees are now eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

“I think that’s fantastic news. You know, our teachers and educators working directly with kids, that’s such an important mission because our children are so precious and they are our future,” he said. “And I’m thankful that we have that choice and opportunity for our educators now to go get the vaccine if they would choose ... I do know that this is part of that proactive plan from our health experts to safely combat COVID and build the immunity.”

During Holcomb’s press conference, Indiana Department of Health (IDOH) Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver said in addition to lowering the age requirement, the state-run vaccine operation began sending invitations for individuals with certain comorbidities to schedule vaccine appointments this past week. Those comorbidities include sickle cell, Down syndrome, active dialysis, solid organ transplants and actively receiving cancer treatment now or within the past three months, she said, with other comorbidities being considered as vaccine supply allows.

“If this describes you or a loved one and you have not yet received a message, do not fret. These will continue to be sent over the next couple of weeks as your providers input your names and information into the system,” Weaver said of those with comorbidities. “It is appropriate to check in with your provider to make sure your information is getting submitted.”

Weaver said the next step in the state’s plan is to incrementally open up vaccine eligibility to Hoosiers ages 40-49 as supply allows.

“Our age-based approach is working. It is being driven by data,” she said. “And we will stay the course and we will continue our work to reduce hospitalizations and save lives in Indiana.”

Weaver said the rapid change to bring the threshold down to 50 years old was bolstered by increased supply of the three approved vaccines. This week, Indiana received 145,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine, 128,000 doses of Moderna vaccine and 54,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine, she said. 21,000 of the J&J doses will be used at the state’s planned mass vaccination sites, and the remainder will be distributed throughout the state.

At Wednesday’s weekly county press conference, Health Officer Dr. William David Moore said opening vaccine eligibility to more Hoosiers is a result of increased supply, but also may be due to less people opting to receive the vaccine in younger populations.

“When we were in the 80 and above, all that could were trying to get it. Now that we’re in the 50s, we may find that there are more people who are going to step back and try to see,” Moore said. “My goal is not to try to convince anybody to get the vaccine, but to help people to have information they need to make an informed decision.”

Weaver said the newly-approved J&J vaccine is different from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines not only because it only requires a single dose, but also because it does not use mRNA technology like the other vaccines.

“It works by using a harmless virus to prompt your body to create antibodies to COVID-19,” she explained.

Weaver said the J&J vaccine has been proven to be safe and effective through clinical trials, though the different circumstances surrounding each vaccines’ trials means they should not be compared “apples to apples.”

“What’s most important to understand is all three vaccines are highly effective and successful at preventing hospitalizations and deaths and those are the results we want to see with any vaccine,” she said. “Our recommendation to Hoosiers is to get whatever vaccine is available as soon as you are eligible to get it.”

Holcomb said that now that eligibility has reached his age range, he will receive a J&J single-dose vaccination at the state’s mass vaccination site at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday along with some state legislators.

Moore said while increased data will help show more details, as of now there does not seem to be a consistent pattern regarding which vaccine will produce adverse reactions for various groups. He said all three seem to have a range of reactions from soreness in the injection site to a few days of flu-like symptoms to the most severe cases that may require hospitalization.

Health care professionals remain ready at vaccination clinics to treat adverse reactions while patients wait 15-30 minutes after the shot to see if the severe reactions occur, Moore said.

“It seems to vary and you’ve got to get enough people together before you get a clear pattern,” Moore said of reactions. “What we try to compare it to is what is the alternative to getting the vaccine and why are you getting the vaccine.”

Moore reiterated opting to get the vaccine for younger and healthier people when eligible is about more than just protecting yourself, because getting vaccinated also protects vulnerable populations around you. It also protects younger, healthier people from the potential that a new variant is more severe in their population, he said.

It appears the three available vaccines are effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths from the various COVID-19 variants around the world, Moore said, but in the future COVID-19 boosters or annual shots may become commonplace like flu shots to stay ahead of variants.

Moore said he personally was infected with COVID but opted to receive the vaccine when he was eligible. He said others who tested positive for COVID should consider getting the vaccine as well because the vaccine has shown to produce at least 10 times the amount of COVID antibodies compared to being infected with the virus. Research is continuing to see how long antibodies and immunity last long term after vaccination, he said.

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