INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana officials opened up COVID-19 vaccination eligibility on Wednesday to all residents 50 and older.
The step comes a day after the state health department began allowing all those ages 55-59 to register for vaccination appointments.
Gov. Eric Holcomb also said he wouldn’t follow fellow Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi in lifting or further easing their statewide mask mandates, with Indiana’s in place at least through March 31.
Holcomb and state health officials said they would stick with their plan to continue expanding vaccine eligibility by age even though President Joe Biden called this week for states to make vaccinating teachers a priority.
State health officials say distributing shots based on age groups protects those most vulnerable to severe illnesses and deaths from the coronavirus.
“Our age-based approach is working,” said Dr. Lindsay Weaver, the state health department’s chief medical officer. “It has been driven by data and we will stay the course, and we will continue our work to reduce hospitalizations and save lives in Indiana.”
Indiana teachers younger than 50 could become eligible for shots under a federal program being operated at Kroger, Meijer and Walmart stores, state officials said.
The state health department is also making shots available to those who are undergoing dialysis or cancer treatments or have conditions such as Down syndrome or sickle cell disease.
Officials said those eligible because of health conditions will be notified about how to schedule an appointment.
About 9% of Indiana residents, of about 600,000, have now been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus since shots first became available to health care workers and older residents in mid-December, the health department said Wednesday.
Even though Indiana’s coronavirus-related hospitalization and deaths have fallen about 80% from their December peaks, Holcomb continues to call for people to follow precautions such as mask wearing and distancing to slow the virus spread.
The governors in Texas and other states have loosen COVID-19 restrictions in recent days despite warnings from health officials against doing so.
Holcomb last week announced a 30-day extension of the mask mandate, which will cover most of the time that the entire NCAA men’s basketball tournament is being played at sites in Indianapolis, Bloomington and West Lafayette.
“We just need to do it looking at Indiana numbers, not Texas, not Mississippi, not Nebraska, not Vermont,” Holcomb said Wednesday. “I’m on the phone with all these governors, they’re all very respected voices in the country, but I’ll continue to focus on what’s going on in Indiana, not around the country.”
The state’s 648 coronavirus-related deaths reported so far for February are about one-fifth of the 3,009 recorded during December, Indiana’s deadliest month during the pandemic.
Holcomb, who is 52, said he would receive the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine on Friday during a mass vaccination clinic at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Holcomb had said he didn’t expect to receive a jab until his age group’s time arrived because he doesn’t have health problems.
“I’m not cutting in line but I’m eligible,” Holcomb said. “And I want to be a good example on that front.”
Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, who is 69, received her second dose of the two-shot Pfizer vaccine last week, according to her office.